Redwing Blackbird – That River Skinned A Bear (2010)

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by Mark Saleski

There are so many things we depend upon in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire that it’s sometimes easy to forget that not all of them have been around forever…or will continue to be so. Just as the mountain itself solidly anchors our mental picture of the area, there are so many other landmarks — the covered bridges, churches, and stone walls — all of which are relatively recent additions to the the Monadnock timeline.

This is how I tend to feel about music too, especially when there is particular resonance. It seems like both the music and my listening self are not recent phenomena but exist free of temporal restraints. By extension: the music has indeed existed forever, but was waiting for the right actors to come along to give voice to the idea and to be receptive to the outcome.

Redwing Blackbird started as a duo of two old friends. Austin Wright and Eric Gagne have known each other forever. This is apparent in the way their voices, acoustic guitars and musical ideas fit together. With the addition of Jeffrey Murphy (upright bass) and Christine Hayward (voice), the circle of friends extends to make music that feels both comfortable and inevitable.

The songs paint intimate vignettes of the familiar: love, loss, the passage of time, the need to get away. The cynic might suggest that these are not exactly earth-shattering topics. The music fan will then point out that there are many diamond shards to be found in everyday locations. What works here is the alchemy produced by images combined with Redwing Blackbird’s stellar harmonies and right sense of sonic shimmer. There are clever bits of percussion here and there as well as backwards guitar parts, violin, and harmonica.

During “Nightingale,” the words “hair left on my pillow” pass by as three-part harmonies and chiming percussion produce a lifting energy, perfectly framing the image. According to my “philosophy of forever,” the music’s moment has finally arrived. The soaring chorus of “Silent Light” is hard to describe but impossible to forget. The vocal interplay during “Lion” is remarkable, so close that you can almost hear Austin & Eric’s friendship. A similar passage comes during “Milltowns” when a three-part harmony is created by stacking the notes one at a time.

There are many factors on this record that allow it to rise above the unadorned singer/songwriter level, not the least of which are the vocals of Christine Hayward. Her distinctive voice adds a kind of subtle Joanna Newsom flavor, weaving golden threads through the existing lower register voices. Jeffrey Murphy’s bass completes the aural picture, playing both a support role (the supposed true purpose of the bass, not that I agree with that sentiment) and bringing decorative elements that again seem inevitable: check out the gorgeous and woody phrase played right after the guitar introduction to “I’m Leaving.”

The reviewerly thing to do at this point is to choose one song that would serve as a perfect introduction to Redwing Blackbird. I sort of hating doing that, as it seems like an invitation for trouble. But…”Rivers” puts so many of the group’s strengths on display that I can’t not talk about it. It begins with a simple two-note guitar figure over which the voices float. You’re almost reminded of the spirituality of songs like “The Water Is Wide,” a feeling bolstered by the country-ish lilt of the full band arrangement that kicks in. A short electric guitar solo takes us over to the next chorus and verse, this time presented in sharp relief as most of the instruments temporarily fall away. When the band launches back in, it’s definitely one of those perfect moments, further celebrated by a surprise guitar solo that would make both Neil Young and Doug Martsh proud. To my ears, “Rivers” feels like the heart of the album.

So yes, much of That River Skinned A Bear does seem like it has existed forever. Just go ahead and give it a listen the next time you’re on your way to Keene via route 124. When you’re crossing Perkins Pond, look right over at the mountain and tell me if the music doesn’t seem completely at home.

That River Skinned A Bear is available at iTunes.

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