When I reviewed Spuyten Duyvil’s previous album a year ago, I noted that the band had just replaced their bass player and added a drummer and a harmonica player. Now, these new members are fully integrated into the band, and we get to hear what they sound like. James Meigs is the harmonica player, and he often plays Chicago style, which means that he places the harmonica directly on the microphone and gets that dirty, distorted sound that one hears in Chicago blues. Mark Miller can now write for a band with a tight rhythm section. So New Amsterdam is an album of folk, blues, even occasional old-time jazz and gospel flavors, but all delivered with a powerful rock kick. Beth Kaufman has the strong voice to put all of this over beautifully, and Miller, who takes more of the lead vocals than last time, is very impressive here as well. He has the power for an old-time blues number, (One Fine Day), but can also take a more subtle approach for a jazzy shuffle, (Through the Light). Overall, the affect is a wonderful blend of rock energy and jug band flavor and variety.
There are two covers on the album. Things get started with a rocking Shady Grove. I’ve never heard the song approached this way before, but I challenge you to try to sit still for this one. Later, a perfect train rhythm starts up, and Beth Kaufman launches into a fine performance of Freight Train. After she completes the lyrics the first time, Mark Miller comes in with a song I haven’t heard before that I would call Angel, Lay Him Away. This then becomes a counter-melody, when Kaufman comes back in with Freight Train again. All in all, it works beautifully. The album cover lists ten songs, but there is also a hidden track that should not have been. Track eleven is just two minutes of silence, but then comes a song called Pride Packs Her Bags. This is a beautiful breakup song, filled with yearning. It is more acoustic than the rest of the album, so maybe that’s why it’s hidden. But don’t miss it.
Mark Miller has a knack for writing original songs that sound traditional, and I certainly mean that as a complement. In particular, I actually searched on line to try to find an older version of One Fine Day. I was that sure I had heard the song before. These kinds of songs often have spare lyrics, with a lot of details left for the listener to fill in. But Miller also writes more modern songs, with more of the details in the lyrics. I was particularly impressed with Coal Train, Through the Light, and Peace With the Damage, as well as Pride Packs Her Bags. Coal Train depicts a weary soldier who must return to the war; the subject could easily be rendered as a political song, but here instead is a deeply human portrait. Peace with the Damage is a portrait of a woman who regrets the actions that have led to a breakup, but who can not yet take full responsibility and apologize. Through the Light has a story that is somewhat in shadows; a man is in the hospital for a life-threatening situation, but he considers his situation through a series of metaphors to avoid fully facing his fears. Miller finds characters in emotional flux, and he depicts them perfectly.
I don’t know when was the last time I mentioned this many of an album’s songs in my review. New Amsterdam is a treat from start to finish.
Spuyten Duyvil: Through the Light
Spuyten Duyvil: Peace With the Damage