Musicians… I’ll tell ya, folks… we’re a quizzical breed.
If I’m not mistaken, I remember Bruce Springsteen commenting on how wonderful it was that U2 had stayed together for 25-plus years upon their entrance to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (or perhaps it was upon the band receiving some other sort of life achievement award somewhere) and how that was such a rare and precious thing that doesn’t happen much.
Wherever it was, the sentiment is painfully true…
I can certainly relate to it personally: after almost 10 years of blood, sweat and tears building and promoting my own band (www.ingdom.com) the group was more or less pulled out from beneath my feet for no fault of mine… member dynamics and circumstance and also a fair amount of that thing we call “life” intervened.
Anyhow… recently I was sent a press release and advance CD of a retrospective collection on a band I’d never heard of — called Continental Drifters. I added it to my to-be-considered pile knowing that at one point I would check it out and perhaps review it if I liked it.
Honestly, I didn’t even look at the package that day I first played it. I just grabbed the CD and brought it with me to listen in the car while driving around town running some errands…. A few songs into the album, I pulled over to look more closely at the CD package. And, wonder of wonders, I was both surprised and overjoyed to find this fine music was being made by some musicians I already knew and of which I was already a fan: Peter Holsapple (of The dBs) and Susan Cowsill (of The Cowsills, that highly misunderstood and under-rated family-band from the 1960s that was the inspiration for The Partridge Family). Add in an ex-Bangle (Vicki Peterson) and a former Dream Syndicate-r (Mark Walton) and before you know it you have the ingredients for what some might term a “super group.”
The only problem with that moniker is that the whole supergroup phenomenon long ago lost its sheen after one too many disappointing efforts (GTR, DNA, etc.) and the overly commercial cha-ching mood-swing of once revered musicians selling out (Asia, Clark-Duke Project, etc.). So even these days when an assemblage like Them Crooked Vultures puts out a well made album, its super-group status doesn’t really help it in the long run — either the record is good or its not.
I mean, really, the original “super groups” of the 60s were genuine powerhouse combinations that ascended to things new and great — be it Cream with its electric-blues infusion or Crosby Stills & Nash which redefined what singers-who-are-also-songwriters could accomplish in the studio and live on stage.
I’m saying all this because I suspect that the “super group” label probably wasn’t going to be the best positioning for a band like Continental Drifters to delve into marketing wise. And, if the history I’ve been reading about them online is any indication, the individual band members were probably more than a bit aware of this fact themselves and thus took the long hard route to build up this band they believed in against all odds. I am skimming over many details (which you can read about in more detail at the band’s website (http://www.continentaldrifters.com), but eventually the band regrouped (making them super-duper-re-group?) and achieved a certain amount of visibility and applause (including a #13 readers poll ranking for Album of the Year by Rolling Stone … in Germany!!).
It is here where that “life intervenes” thing I mentioned earlier takes over because just as the band was on the verge of acceptance by the US music industry powers-that-be (as in getting genuine support from the star making machinery), September 11th, 2001 descended upon us all and by January 2002, some band members decided it was time to take a different path again. (SIDE NOTE: oddly enough, I coincidentally started listening to this album on September 11th 2015 while driving to my voice lesson!).
Ok, so there I have set up the album’s roots for you and by now you probably want to know WHAT it sounds like and HOW it sounds.
The Continental Drifters are a sort of modern quazi -Americana flavored assemblage, meaning that the band members allow themselves the flexibility to add in acoustic, slide and pedal steel guitars, embracing more than a bit of twang alongside the pop ‘n roll of their collective pasts. Like so many Linda Ronstadts and Carlene Carters before them, the group is at its root a rock group, creating melodic, harmony-drenched, driving fast-folk music with some of the hallmarks common to Country, Bluegrass and Blues music (and, yeah, that spells CBGBs for those of you paying attention).
Most important are the songs and there are some gems here. “Side Steppin’ The Fire” sounds like something John Hiatt should record. “Match Made In Heaven” could be an alternative universe Traffic tune (pre-John Barleycorn). Don’t be thrown by the fact that there are some demos, early versions and alternative mixes on this collection — this band’s demos are fairly polished affairs that sound real nice in all their multi-track recorded glory. Thus the early version of Susan Cowsill’s “The Rain Song” could have easily been released as a single in a world that was fair and true — this thing rocks like nobody’s business. “Dallas” reminds me for some reason of Uncle Tupelo and some of Wilco’s earthier recordings. Its really neat to hear dB Peter Holsapple tackling the waltz-time swagger of “Invisible Boyfriend” — don’t know why, but I’d love to hear Elvis Costello do this one… it feels like something that might fit in on a sequel to his “King of America.”
And so on it goes …
Disc 2 is chockfull of nifty cover -tune nuggets that are so good it might be tempting to just listen to those more than than the regular album tracks. I mean, their picks are plumb choice: William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” Neil Young’s “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” Mike Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” Tommy James’ “Tighter, Tighter,’ The Hollies’ “I Can’t Let Go” and a bunch of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny gems (“I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight,” “You’re Gonna Need Somebody,” “Listen, Listen” and so on). There are a bunch of great sounding live recordings including Brian Wilson and Mike Love’s “Farmer’s Daughter.” They even pull off a lovely stripped down blues-guitar version of a song made famous by The Mama’s and The Papas: “Dedicated To The One I Love” — yeah, they do all the four harmonies!
So, yeah, if you like all things Americana with a twist of British Folk thrown in for good measure you’ll need to add The Continental Drifters to your collection. The CD sounds pretty warm and nice all things considered — no real big harsh edges detected here. But it is what it is and your primary focus here is the music ultimately. Hopefully we’ll all be able to see them perform live soon. And if they get big enough, maybe someday we’ll get a nice spiffy series of analog vinyl pressings to enjoy for the ages. Fingers crossed.