with special guest Joe Pug
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About Elephant Revival
A haunting sound, at once evocative and mysterious, ushers in Petals, the latest album by Elephant Revival. Notes rise and suffuse the silence; are joined by a deep bass drone, a quiet pulse of cello and a percussive tick: daybreak made music.
That first sound on the lead track, “Hello You Who,” is a steel guitar, and its cinematic swell foreshadows the exploration of new territory by this beloved Rocky Mountain ensemble. A new band member and the introduction of instruments like the pedal steel and the cello into their already impressive treasure trove of strings and percussion are just the beginning. Petals embodies a deepening, as the quintet dives into themes of loss and rebirth, time and memory, love unbound by body or farewell. “Hello you who moves with me in a dance/Hello you who moves me like the sea/…Who loves me Love loves me just to be.” This hello is both a celebration of unconditional love and an invitation to join Elephant Revival in its wayfaring.
The death of a close friend having left its indelible mark on the band, many of the songs on Petals represent what guitarist Daniel Rodriguez calls “an honoring and a coping.” But this is not an album about despair or darkness; it’s a thanksgiving and a prayer for what endures and returns. “She thanks the sky, and she walks the earth/…To the broken-hearted, to the burdened, too/To everyone, peace tonight” (“Peace Tonight”). This idea is embodied in the very name Elephant Revival: moved by the separation and subsequent death of three elephants at the Chicago zoo, bass and mandolin player Dango Rose was inspired to busk in front of what was once their enclosure. Not just a gesture, but a true endeavor to create meaning and grace from loss. Petals, the band’s fourth album, is, in fact, a revival.
As ever, Nature is both a real and metaphorical touchstone in Elephant Revival’s work, from the petals pressed into the book of memory in the title track (“These petals intended for giving release”), to the seasons spinning through death and rebirth in “Season Song.” There are intimations too, of the ominous vulnerability of Nature to our darker impulses. In “Raindrops,” Bonnie Paine sings, “Raindrops on the rooftops he said/Just stop and listen/Constant as the earthquakes.” She is both warning of the real effects of fracking and reminding us that a remedy may lie in deep listening—to each other and to the earth itself. The band’s commitment to community and the environment remains at the core of their music.
Elephant Revival’s music maintains its roots in American and Celtic songcraft, but on Petals, they achieve a compositional maturity that in moments can evoke the modern classical ensemble. Spare, almost conversational strings punctuate the rhythmic momentum in songs like the title track and the almost archetypically stark Celtic narrative, “Furthest Shore,” a continuation of the story told in the song “Currach” from their first 2008 self-titled release. The icy drama of the North Sea inhabits those percussive strings and resounding drums. This kind of intensity recurs in other songs, like “When I Fall,” a Dango Rose-penned shout-out for transcendence through trial, whose unison power chorus brings to mind Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Passion arises from compassion on this album; tenderness and wildness go hand in hand. Dan Rodriguez’ voice on wholehearted folk songs like “On and On” and “Home In Your Heart” is a gentle counterpoint to Paine’s vocal intensity, and the songwriting overall describes a wide arc. Just follow Bridget Law’s expressive fiddle through the course of the album to hear the moan of the blues, the lyricism of the folk ballad, the elegant bones of the chamber piece, the bluegrass punch. All the earthy rhythms, eclectic influences and the rich instrumental brew that Elephant Revival fans cherish are here. But eclecticism, though a key feature of their sound, has never been the point. For these multi-instrumentalists, these singers and writers, sound and song serve one another: the play between instrumentation, composition, emotion and restraint is an organic unfolding. Paine, for example, has never recorded or performed on the cello before this album, but she’s written songs on it for years, so if her throaty cello somehow sounds like a deep extension of her voice, it is. And if new band member Charlie Rose’s magnetic pedal steel conjures ghosts—of love, of landscapes—it’s because Petals is haunted by those things.
Elephant Revival’s is the music of connection—kin-folk—and the message of Petals, their most intimate album to date, is not how life is about loss, but rather how much life there is in loss, how much potency, how much love. The ghost of the beloved in the final track “Close As Can Be” is not, after all, far away. “…I feel you near/You’re lifting the leaves/Saying to me/We’ll be close as can be.” The hello of the first song has gone on a musical odyssey and found in the end, in goodbye, its mirror image: the promise once more of unending and unconditional love.
About Joe Pug
If the opening notes on Joe Pug's new LP "Windfall" are a bit disorienting, his fans won't likely be surprised. The Austin, TX singer songwriter has made a habit of defying expectations so the piano-driven "Bright Beginnings" and the atmospheric rumination of "Great Hosannas" are just further indication that he's quite comfortable stepping outside of the guy-with-a-guitar trappings of the genre.
His rise has been as improbable as it has been impressive. After dropping out of college and taking on work as a carpenter in Chicago, he got his musical start by providing CDs for his fans to pass along to their friends. This led to a string of sold out shows and a record deal with Nashville indie Lightning Rod Records (Jason Isbell, Billy Joe Shaver). As he toured behind "Messenger" (2010) and The Great Despiser (2012) it was with a band that looked as much like a jazz trio as an Americana band. "I never quite found a live band that captured what I was aiming for until I connected with Greg [Tuohey -- electric guitar] and Matt [Schuessler -- upright bass]. It was an arrangement that maybe didn't make a ton of sense on paper but 10 minutes into the first rehearsal I knew this was going to be my band." The following years would have them on the road for over four hundred shows, including stops at Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and The Newport Folk Festival.
The relentless grind of four years of nonstop touring had taken its toll though, and by late 2013 he was ready to call it quits. The tour that fall was a runaway success but his personal and creative lives were a different story. "It was this surreal dichotomy. Everyone kept congratulating me on how well the tour was going, and the mood was probably the best it had ever been on the road. We finally got two hotel rooms in each city instead of one. We've got this incredible group of die-hard fans that somehow make each show bigger than our previous trip through town. Meanwhile my relationship was in shambles and creatively I was at a dead end. There was absolutely no joy left in playing music. So we walked off stage after a particular show when I played terribly, and pulled my manager aside in the green room and told him to cancel the rest of the tour dates and that I was essentially through."
But studio time was already scheduled and deadlines had been set for a new record, so after a few weeks Pug was back to the business of writing songs. "In retrospect, I was in a very unhealthy place. I was sitting in a room with the blinds shut and a notebook, forcing out words that weren't there and drinking astonishing amounts of bourbon. I was looking at it as a job....as a business obligation, and that is a very slippery slope." At that point he decided to make good on his promise from the previous tour. The album was put on indefinite hold. "I just needed to start behaving like a human being again. I needed to reconnect with my girlfriend. I needed to eat healthy food. I needed to go enjoy live music as a fan. I really needed to make sure I still loved making music, because I really had my doubts at that point."
The resulting layoff paid dividends in spades. When Pug set up camp in Lexington KY in 2014 to record, he did so with some of the best songs he has ever written. The agenda was much simpler than previous albums. "The aim on this one was very straightforward. We wanted to capture the music just the way we play it, with minimal production. It was a very back to basics approach because ultimately that's what I love about music, and that's what I love about making music. I wanted to record these songs the way they were written and put them out in the world." The result is a collection of songs that are as close as we've gotten to a road map to Pug's ambitions. He has collected plenty of the requisite Dylan comparisons over his young career but on this record it's easier to hear the sway of more contemporary influences like Josh Ritter, Ryan Adams and M.Ward.
The theme of resilience plays a central role throughout Windfall. The weary protagonist in "Veteran Fighter" wills his way further down the highway despite the gloom that seems certain to overtake him. "The Measure," a song inspired in part by Frederic Buechner's novel Godric, marvels at "every inch of anguish, laid out side by side" but ultimately finds that "All we've lost is nothing to what we've found." "I never really write songs with a specific narrative in mind," Pug explains. "When you're sort of pushing through a dark period of your life it's probably inevitable that some of that is going to find its way onto the page. But in the same way, by the time we were in the studio the process had become very effortless and joyful. And hopefully you can hear a lot of that on the record as well." This duality appears perhaps most overtly in the album-closing stunner "If Still It Can't Be Found," which features Pat Sansone of Wilco guesting on mellotron.
If it's not around this corner it's around the next
If it's not beyond this river it's beyond the next
And if still it can't be found
It's prob'ly for the best
As the saying goes, "All's well that ends well." Joe Pug didn't call it quits after all. He's engaged to be married and still drinks bourbon on occasion. His new album, Windfall, will be released March 10, 2015 on Lightning Rod Records in the US and Loose Music in Europe.