by Lindsay Eanet
The release of country jam band Railroad Earth’s fifth studio album, Amen Corner, comes with a sentimental and slightly tragic undertone. The band’s in-house video director, Dave Manzo, shot the music videos for the album at the historic blues venue the Stanhope House in Stanhope, N.J., where they had their first gig seven years before and closed its doors last May. Playing amid floral rugs and framed photos, the band seems as though they are in their own home recordig here: on “Right in Tune,” Andy Goessling runs his hand across a slide guitar while sitting on a bathroom sink; mandolinist John Skehan plucks from the attic, the comfort and ease they seem to find here driving the music, making it resonate from every corner, making the venue’s closing all the more tragic.
But the loss of the Stanhope House aside, the vibes from the recording sessions (recording for the album itself took place in an old barn in rural New Jersey) seem to resonate throughout Amen Corner: it is comforting, homey and feels effortless via the skill of this talented sextet. “Been Down This Road” makes for a good beginning of the journey, the kind of story often seen in this genre of the returning wanderer’s encounter with a familiar face, with a “Hard Livin’” overflows with twang, with banjo and mandolin competing for space with the song’s upbeat slacker-Zen lyrics. A sax solo out of nowhere bringing some much-welcome color and dimension.
“Bringin’ My Baby Back Home” is the album’s first stomper, a solid, traditional bluegrass number with plenty of room for claps and “yee-haws” (of which must be plentiful during the band’s live gigs) between frontman Todd Sheaffer’s mountain-man hollering.
The album peaks on the middle stretch, thanks to a series of diverse but still complementary songs, often showcasing familiar sounds the band is capable of making their own. These include the earnest alt-country strummer “Right in Tune,” a sincere and simply beautiful love ditty that feels a bit like Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” at times and the bluesy “Waggin’ the Dog,” where Sheaffer does his best Jerry Garcia impression and effortlessly recreates the rootsy harmonies the Dead were known for, but without losing the Railroad Earth essence, here appearing in spunky mandolin spurts. The stretch ends with one of the most beautiful tracks the band has ever written, the heartfelt “Little Bit O’ Me,” a song written after three of the members had their first children within about a year and a half. Playful chimes and lyrics like “oh little baby/before you move along/let me fill your cup with a bucket of song” make this an instant classic for new parents and the band’s fans.
Old-school bluegrass feels refreshing thanks to the technical flair of these musicians on tracks like the melancholy “All Alone” or the jaunty, rolling instrumental “Lonecroft Ramble,” on which the instruments seem to harmonize the way vocalists would normally. Supporting instruments do their own interesting things under the surface without overpowering the solos and demonstrating the sort of potent musical chemistry that makes the band function. The good-but-not-great electric track “Crossing the Gap” sounds a bit too much like what Yonder Mountain String Band has been doing for the past few years, and while not a bad song, it doesn’t feel as strong as some of the other tracks.
Appropriately enough, the album closes with a cozy love song, appropriately titled “Lovin’ You.” And with the sincerity and warmth the band shows throughout the album, when Sheaffer tells the listener he’s in love, you’d better believe he means it.