Click to hear: “La Familia”
When Cerberus Shoal went on hiatus a couple years ago, the musical collective from the tank farms of South Portland morphed into several smaller projects – Big Blood, dilly dilly, Fire on Fire (formerly Threads), and Asian Mae among them. Time to add one more.
Me in a “Field” is Shoal co-founder Chriss Sutherland’s first solo release. Like most other post-Shoal material, Field is what you could call “avant-garde Americana,” traditional music tweaked-out with unexpected instruments, warbling vocals, artfully damaged recording techniques, etc.
The fullest expression of the Cerberus-unplugged aesthetic is Fire on Fire, in which Sutherland is joined by three Shoal alums – Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin (a.k.a. Big Blood) and Tom Kovacevic – plus old-time blues revivalist Micah Blue Smaldone. The group’s strong five-song EP came out last year on Young God Records.
Field is a stripped-down collection of 10 acoustic numbers recorded between 2005 and 2007. There’s no circus-on-acid weirdness or otherworldly world music here. It’s just Sutherland and his guitar, with some friends stopping by from time to time to tickle ivories, or pluck a banjo, or do whatever you do to a riqq.
Several converged for the opener, “La Familia.” The lineup is basically Fire on Fire minus Smaldone, and it produces one of the best tunes on this album, a lazy porch-strummer with a sing-along Spanish chorus. “Grumblin’,” the next track, is a creaky and croaky recording that manages to be catchy despite its oddity.
True to its title, “Fadin’ Out” threatens to lull you to sleep with its molasses pace and drone of a chorus. I’d have faded this one out sooner. The tempo picks up with “Deseos,” a tale of excess and redemption told in Dylan’s wordy early style, minus all the literary allusions.
Sutherland’s weathered voice has a lot of character, and there’s plenty of fine guitar work on Field. “El Calor De La Noche” has a lovely little instrumental intro and a melody to match, though it’d be better at about half its seven-plus minutes.
“People Loving People” is a strange bird, a broken folk song with disassociated lines like “partridge family not originally or naturally together” alternately sung and intoned by Sutherland and guitarist Donnue Hamulak. Then someone starts blowing a conch shell or something and all bets are off.
Kovacevic adds nice touches of piano to the aching and beautiful “Exile From D. St.,” and Smaldone brings his banjo to “Perez,” another lovely song that runs a bit over. By comparison, “Desde Maine,” the album’s closer, is a perfect gem at 1:57.
Field has its dull moments and weak spots – like “Coyote Tonight,” a stoned-out throwaway from the woods near Denmark – but overall, this is a very accomplished collection. It’s certainly some of the most listenable and heartfelt stuff to come from the House of Shoal in the past dozen years (Sutherland spends at least half the album pining for his girlfriend in Spain).
This album stands as a milestone in Sutherland’s career, but it’s also a sign pointing to even greater things to come from Fire on Fire. Literally. While researching this review, I came across a new song called “Heavy D” on the band’s MySpace page (myspace.com/fireonforemusic). Dig Sutherland’s Levon Helm-inspired lead vocal, backed by Kinsella (a.k.a. Asian Mae) and the boys.
Damn, they’re gettin’ good.
– Chris Busby
Chriss Sutherland plays a CD release show, with Cursillistas, on Thurs., Jan. 31, at Space Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland, at 8 p.m. Tix: $6 (18+). 828-5600. space538.org.