Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Trapper Haskins & the Bitter Swill - Alluvium


First things first. Alluvium is a term in geology for a loose formation of sand or silt left behind by the running water of a river or large stream. It can also be found in areas that are subject to frequent flooding. It is the dirt or soil that is left behind, unwanted, but it can sometimes contain gems or precious metals. As such, it is the perfect metaphor for many of the lives described on this album. Now that may seem like a reach. I didn’t name this album, I only researched the word that is its title. But if you are going to give your album a name like that, you had better be a good enough wordsmith to make the metaphor work, and not seem forced. Trapper Haskins is up to the job. On Alluvium, we are in the hands of a very fine writer.

Trapper Haskins plays electric, acoustic, and resonator guitars. His band has a drummer, and a bass player who plays both standup and electric. And the final member of the band plays piano, organ, accordion, and saxophone. Guest musicians contribute pedal steel, fiddle, and additional electric guitar. So there are some intriguing possibilities for arrangements there, but you don’t here them right away. Instead, Haskins and Co seem intent on showing their ability as a bar band. That lasts for the first four tracks of the album, while Haskins’ strong lyrics carry the show. Then, to this ear, the music catches up to the words, and the rest of the album is strong in both areas.

The album opens with an uptempo rocker, Souvenir. A guy buys his girlfriend a bracelet when they are young, and its physical condition becomes a manifestation of the state of their relationship as time passes. Out of State Tags presents a man who had left his home town behind him, and returns as a stranger, but thinking of the girl he left behind. Song for Lehigh sounds like a tender love song, but it turns out to be about a man and his guitar; the story has been done to death, but Haskins makes it sound both believable and new.

But the single most amazing piece of songwriting here is Comes a Darkness. The narrator is awaked in the middle of the night by a female friend at his door. He starts to be annoyed, but, as he becomes more awake, he realizes that something serious has happened. The story is told entirely in the words he speaks to her; we never hear her voice. And yet, it is her story, and Haskins lets us know exactly what happened, without the benefit of her words. It’s a remarkable piece of storytelling. Storytelling is the key to this album. Almost all of the songs tell a story, and tell it well. There are strong images and metaphors. And there are times when I marveled at a turn of phrase. Describing a young couple who would turn out to not be right for each other, Haskins sings, “You’d keep your eyes out for meteorites, but I never was patient enough.” That’s perfect. But it is all in service of furthering the tale.

There is one final piece of the puzzle. Trapper Haskins makes all of this work by singing the way he does. For the louder numbers, he sings in a high tenor with a bit of a catch to it. On the softer songs, his voice comes down to a second tenor, or even a baritone at times. This can convey resignation or warmth. Having both options available gives Haskins a full emotional range to draw upon, and he knows how to put this to good use. Every song is believable, because Haskins’ vocal lets you know that he believes. Haskins is echoed in several places by the background vocals of Candace Mache. This is a subtle touch that you could miss if you didn’t know to listen for it, but it gives the music an extra dimension.

Alluvium marks the arrival of a very talented writer, and a band that can take this music in a lot of interesting directions. I’ll be very interested to see what happens next time. This story has only just started.

Trapper Haskins & the Bitter Swill: Comes a Darkness

Trapper Haskins & the Bitter Swill: Song for Lehigh