When culling through the hours upon hours of recently-released material from Bob Dylan and The Band’s seminal 1967 recording sessions at Big Pink, the best part is not the songs. And don’t get me wrong, they’re great; some of the greatest, weirdest Americana that has ever been put to tape, to tell you the truth. But what really sets The Basement Tapes apart is that you can hear the camaraderie coming through the speakers, the sheer joy of a group of friends making music for music’s sake in a room, as if the recording equipment just stumbled across it: an accidental onlooker. Now I can’t sit here and truthfully tell you that the self-titled debut album by Cincinnati’s hard-working Willow Tree Carolers will set the world on fire like the long-delayed Tapes did back in the mid-1970’s (really, what could?), but the conviviality, the spirit? It’s got that in scores.
The Carolers recorded the album in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge back in April, and upon arriving at their rental, they discovered it was dubbed the “Making Memories Cabin” by the owner. How apropos. Building on the strength of March’s EP (the two releases share three songs) the record gives the broadest look yet at the young quartet’s formidable talents. While the former featured snappy close-miked guitars, the latter has a more atmospheric, organic sound. You can hear the cabin. It’s like one of the instruments, maybe even one of the players.
The record crackles to life with a twinkling riff that introduces “Good Reuben James,” based on a classic Woody Guthrie track, but given a rambunctious new reading and arrangement by the Carolers. They wallow in the tear-in-my-beer hard times of “Up And Dead,” and “Gone Away” opens with Freewheelin’ fingerpicking before chugging up to its full speed. Of the songs retooled from the earlier EP, “Laughery Creek” is particularly satisfying, its easy-livin’ lyrics buoyed along by Moose Gronholm’s upright bass. “One Foot In The Grave,” also making a repeat appearance, and becomes a dizzying, hellish vision with the dual lead vocals of cousins Josh Sparks and Brandon Martin growling above the din. Throughout the record, Josh’s brother Dave provides distinctive, inventive percussion that grounds the arrangements in unexpected and interesting ways.
But to these ears, the spooky “Winter’s Day” is the real dark heart of the record. Bookended by spectral whistling rising above a “Just Like Honey” drumbeat, the song is a jarring contradiction, at once defiant of the elements and defeated by them: “Winter takes hold, and it goes so slow/Oh what do we say when we do not know?” There is an intangible desperation hiding among the song’s shifting dynamics. Winter always wins.
It’s impossible to hear the infectious energy of these songs and not get pulled in by Willow Tree Carolers. But there’s also a motif, an undercurrent of struggle and resistance: “We do not give up.” “I will not sit, I’m gonna make a stand.” “Trouble will not take my life.” The Carolers’ voices howl in the face of hardship, united as one, carrying on the American folk tradition with their own interesting angle. This is an immensely promising debut album, the hard-earned results of a tireless touring schedule and a loving devotion to the craft of creating music together. So hit a show and pick up a copy. They’ll be at the Porkopolis Pig & Whiskey Festival at Horseshoe Casino this Saturday, August 1st, will be closing out day 1 of the Whispering Beard Folk Festival on August 27th and can be seen at various venues around the Queen City nearly every weekend.