Written by: Dave Cantrell
The prevailing, if slightly elitist, notion among many of the the high falute of the music-scene cognescenti is that creating material that’s absolutely new and startling, something out on an edge so cutting it slices its listeners’ expectations to ribbons, is the most uniquely daunting challenge a musician/artist can face, and that those that manage it are the only ones deserving their own marbled porticoes in the pantheon. Well, not to spit on the experts or anything – and there is some validity however over-idealized to that line of thinking – but it seems to us that it’s at least as difficult to take a tried, exceedingly true and thoroughly trod upon form and carve a vision of freshness out of it, to give such devoted voice to it that said voice becomes singular in itself. Particularly tricky because it requires absorbing the traditions while also reflecting them, honoring them while recasting them, and nowhere is this potentially trickier than in the often hidebound world of roots music.
There, in the stretched matrix that takes in country, Celtic, troubadour folk, and americana among many other long-mined veins that run as deep as faith from the County Donegal that spawned Clannad to the Tennessee coal mining towns where the world begins and ends with the name Carter, and beyond – rickety dance halls with Bob Wills still echoing through the rafters, the vamped shadows following a New Orleans processional, some minstrelsy in Coventry lost to the centuries – the task of inhabiting, sounding comfortably familiar while simultaneously restitching the heirloom quilt as one deems fit, must be as daunting as anything faced by the out-there innovators be their first name LaMonte or last name Cage. The Vagaband, however, an eight-piece troupe out of Norfolk in the UK just now releasing their sophomore LP, take that tangled, many-limbed challenge and tear it up by its, umm, roots, doing it with a preponderance of authority and glee while never shying away from the darkness inherent. From its spooked-up intro (“Top of the Morning”) that finds a theremin left out there in the hollow to the desperado harmonics that help define “A Different Drum,” the album’s final track that evolves into a piano and pedal steel ballad that could have been written in the myth-making aftermath of Dylan’s “Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” Medicine For the Soul defines aplomb.
Truly, The Vagaband find any number of ways to bowl you over here, sometimes quietly – the title track’s respectful kiss of a Townes Van Zandt tribute; the haunting, stately “Ten Bells Waltz,” wordless and sepulchral – sometimes with cheek and insouciance – their fearless romping swing take on Ween’s “Gabrielle” that spins like the devil’s own dervish on a Saturday night, José McGill’s vocal matching pluck for pluck Joe Wright’s country stomp fiddle, the perfect swerve of Patrick Arbuthnot’s pedal steel, and Ali Houillebecq’s Garth Hudson-in-a-tizzy alto sax – but always with a confidence that’s equal parts grace and bravado.
The twanging rumble of the lyrically rich “Black Sheep” echoes over the Irish backcountry reminding us of where the McCoys of “the Hatfields and..” fame originated, teasing playfully as to whether it’s autobiographically tongue-in-cheek or a tell-all memoir. “Roll The Thunder” has a bespoke authenticity like Tom Russell in a mortally reflective mood, “A Town With No Name” takes its somber lost soul’s beginning and breaks it out into a sly, semi-orchestral N’Awlins vamp, all the while possessed of a lyrical bent worthy of Elvis Costello in a Tom Waits state of mind. The bare-bones, barstool philosophizin’ of “Lifted,” meanwhile, espouses a fine line of drifter optimism given further boost by a genial parp of brass, some birdsong flute and a bounce-along piano tone sparkling enough to erase whatever malice might reside in your heart, much as the woozy knockabout “Cisco Wine,” with its light barrelhouse theatrics and indefatigably easy swing, leaves an aftertaste of hope despite its narrative’s less-than-sunny outcome.
Nonchalantly refuting assumptions concerning both genre and birthplace, The Vagaband seem merrily intent on simply getting on with what they do, adroitly churning out gems endowed with a musically multi-lingual provenance that have the uncanny – if unsurprising – ability to draw in fans wherever they’re heard, be it Glastonbury, Bestival, or any number of media outlets including Q Magazine. No wonder, really. Medicine For the Soul is roots music unbound, sending its shoots out into all directions.