Railroad Earth lays new tracks on latest album | AspenTimes.com

Railroad Earth lays new tracks on latest album

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesNew Jersey band Railroad Earth, with mandolinist John Skehan, has released "Railroad Earth," its fifth studio album.

When Railroad Earth was making its first album, they were blissfully unaware of that fact. A decade ago the sextet, which had grown out of casual jam sessions in the wooded hills of northwest New Jersey, had in mind a five-song demo to serve as their calling card to the music world. But the demo was a strong enough document of the band’s bluegrass-rock blend that things moved unexpectedly fast – including a booking on the main stage of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Railroad Earth had to hustle to make a proper full-length album, and that debut, “The Black Bear Sessions,” featured five of the tracks that had been recorded as demos.Railroad Earth hasn’t strayed far from those organic roots. They are known primarily as a live act, with lengthy jams and unpredictable set lists flowing from their acoustic instruments. Their four previous studio albums have more or less reflected that approach, the recording process starting with six musicians playing together in a room. Their last album, 2008’s “Amen Corner,” was recorded in the barn on singer Todd Sheaffer’s property.With their new album, titled “Railroad Earth,” the band has never been so keenly aware that they were, in fact, making a recording. It’s hardly a buffed-up pop album, but there are elements – the layered harmony vocals on “Black Elk Speaks,” the prominence of electric guitars and effects, the snappy sound of the drums throughout – that quickly separate this from past efforts. It is easily Railroad Earth’s most studio-focused album.John Skehan, the band’s mandolinist, credits several factors for this bend in the track. At the urging of their new label, One Haven Music, the band brought in an outside producer, Angelo Montrone. Having worked with acts including reggae artist Matisyahu and pop singer Natalie Cole, Montrone was accustomed to a building-block approach to making records, and with Railroad Earth he worked in a similar way. “This one, we really built from the ground up – a week or two of pre-production, and then handed it off to the producer and let him take it from there,” Skehan said.Skehan added that the making of “Railroad Earth” – which he acknowledged represented a sharp break from past recording practices – made sense for Sheaffer’s latest batch of songs.”Our m.o. is always to serve the song, and that’s always in the producer’s mind,” he said. “This album, because of the songs, wanted a built-up approach. The songs Todd came in with didn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s open up a five-minute jam in the middle.’ They spoke as set, arranged songs.”That allowed Railroad Earth to experiment with the way they produce sounds. The vocals are more methodically coordinated than ever, and at times, as on the lovely “On the Banks,” they show a knack for harmony singing. Andy Goessling tried his hand at lap steel and electric guitar; Sheaffer joined him on electric guitar. Tim Carbone, who generally specializes in fiddle, “played wild, ethereal feedback effects on ‘Black Elk Speaks,'” added Skehan, whose own experimentation included playing unusual tunings on his bouzouki. For reasons that may have nothing to do with the recording technique, the Celtic element that has always been a part of Railroad Earth’s style is particularly strong here.While the process is markedly different, and the results are noticeable, “Railroad Earth” doesn’t ultimately represent a dramatic departure. Sheaffer’s songs remain firmly rooted in the natural world, the yearning for human bonding, and reflections on simpler, less plugged-in times. Despite the more pronounced rock element, “Railroad Earth” has no shortage of quieter numbers, including “Day on the Sand” and “On the Banks.” And despite the tighter arrangements, or maybe because of them, the band lets itself cut loose on the 11-plus-minute instrumental “Spring-Heeled Jack.” Perhaps in the end, for a band like Railroad Earth, what’s most important is how these songs play out on the live stage. (The band plays a three-night stand, Dec. 29-31, at Denver’s Ogden Theater.) Nothing on this album seems impossible to present for a live audience. “Jupiter & the 119” – nominally about the first transcontinental rail track, but also hinting at more recent efforts at unifying the country – seems ready to become a fan favorite.Skehan said the band was generally welcoming to throwing a monkey wrench into their typical way of making an album. “One of the things that is interesting, helpful and sometimes perplexing about using a producer is, he’s going to take you in different directions. All of a sudden, he’s going to be the one calling the shots. That can be disarming,” Skehan said.And how does Skehan think the fans, known as Hobos, will welcome this new face of Railroad Earth?”I’m very curious to see,” he said. “We’re very lucky in that we have passionate fans. They’re along for the ride as much as we are, to see where we’re going.”stewart@aspentimes.com

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