Not long ago Bombadil sang “Learning to Let Go;” now their upcoming fifth album is called Hold On, and with it comes themes of clinging to memories while grasping for meaning. Many of the songs express discontent, but the lyrics are couched in a variety of music moods, some conveying somberness, others defying it.
Bombadil continues to reinvent their sound, incorporating more electronic effects and paring down instrumentation. It’s a different band than their younger incarnation which NC’s Indy Week once described as “an incredible sort of circus act”.
Their sonic streamlining coincides with the band having gone from quartet to trio following the departure of guitarist and founding member Bryan Rahija. He appears to have taken most of the band’s former folkishness along with him since while the new album combines a variety of genres, straightforward folk is not one of them. Even though Rahija stopped touring with Bombadil in 2012, he had an equal part in the creation of their 2013 album Metrics of Affection on which he and his compositions are still featured. The upcoming album is the first to emphasize the band’s trio identity.
Bombadil has been prolifically creating new songs and becoming more piano-centered. The trio - Daniel Michalak, Stuart Robinson and James Phillips - trade instrumental duties in performances, but have primary instruments. Michalak plays bass guitar and takes turns at piano. Robinson is the group’s main pianist with some ukulele departures. Phillips is the band’s drummer, but has been expanding more into other instrument territories. And all three sing; strong three-part harmonies and creative vocal interplay have become hallmarks of the band.
The key to identifying Bombadil’s musical style may be found in the art illustrating the album cover of Hold On. The painting by artist Jeremy Okai Davis appears at first glance to be only colors in shapes arranged on a grid. But if you keep your eyes trained on the painting and step back, the image of a face emerges, getting clearer the farther away you move.
Just as impressionism allows the eye to mix colors into shapes, the members of Bombadil contribute their own very distinct sounds and promote their personal music preferences, then let the listeners combine this for themselves and call it what they wish.
Impressionistic literature tells stories through sensory impressions rather than by objective reality and this definitely describes many Bombadil lyrics. Perhaps their genre could be called “pop impressionism.”
The new album’s opening track, “Coughing on the F Train” begins with trumpet fanfare, as if to announce “get ready to hear something different.” Michalak sings a stream-of-consciousness ballad, the plot of which is vague, but enjoyable nonetheless. Bombadil’s quizzical and curious lyrics have come to be expected, so that aspect of the piece is familiar, even if the musical setting is not.
When Michalak takes the lead we are treated to enigmatic stories as he plays with words, valuing them more for their compositional properties than for their meaning or context, from the cynical “Bill You For Your Trash,” to the plaintive “Seth.”
The song “Amy’s Friend” has had a life of its own in advance of the new album, having already become an audience favorite at live shows, and released as a single. It appeared on a Spotify “New Music Tuesdays” playlist and Folk Radio UK chose it as a “Song of the Day”. The song has an appealing simplicity surrounded by subtle touches of percussion and gossamer layers of vocals and whistling.
The album’s title is discovered in lyrics sung by Phillips in “Forgive Me Darling:” “I want you to know that I wanted to stay. I wanted to hold on for just one more day...”
Phillips has produced a solo album in the past, but this song is his first turn as lead singer on a Bombadil album while his penchant for electronica has influenced Bombadil’s output over the last couple years and on this album.
Robinson’s songs are all stand-outs with compelling lyrics in memorable musical settings. “Sunny December” is particularly effusive word-wise. Love is described in metaphors: it’s a disease, an ungrateful cat. Love is personified: it won’t smile, shine or care, and it is cruel, unforgiving, and spiteful.
The song’s poetry features oblique and slant rhyme with hip hop accents over a steady chordal accompaniment. It’s impressive that Robinson can play this measured, classical-sounding piano part while his singing follows the natural inflection of the words, a polyrhythmic feat, but one which he makes sound effortless. In an ingenious example of tone painting, the repeated accompaniment pattern is broken on the words “love will break you apart.” This interruption magnifies the desolation of that phrase.
“Love You Too Much” is a soulful testament of longing for lost love, and a showcase for Robinson’s vocal ability. On the chorus, as he sings “Oh God, will I ever be past you? Oh God, will I ever feel strong at last? Oh God, will I ever move on from your touch? I don’t think so, but I do know that I love you too much.”
on each utterance of “Oh God” his voice descends seamlessly from a falsetto to full voice in eloquent dejection.
This was the song I most looked forward to on the album, having especially enjoyed and admired the live performances I’d heard of it. But I felt a little let down since the version on Hold On, while impressive, seems too precise and careful, lacking the more emotional conviction and improvisation that has been heard in live performances of this piece, such as this one:
In the song “Honest” Robinson is more than that, he’s brutally honest. The lyrics are invective, uncomfortably personal, but the piece is remarkable. A stark, repeated piano pattern with a persistence akin to a dripping faucet heightens the tension, until it unravels into spasms of brittle percussion and a Steve Reich-ish minimalistic repetitive loop of the words “where I lost my mind.”
The album’s capstone is “Framboise” featuring clever bilingual interplay and eliciting feelings of deja vu with its 60s pop vibe. A bonus is Bryan Rahija’s distinctive guitar playing on this track, harking back to the vintage Bombadil sound as a gift to fans who might be grieving his loss in the band’s line-up.
In “Framboise” smoothly interwoven vocal lines are punctuated by outbursts of harmony. The accompaniment rocks subtly back and forth as if the narrator is pacing while addressing the mademoiselle in both French and English. Since French is the “language of love” the casual listener might think of this as romantic teasing. But the trading back and forth between singers makes it sound like an interrogation, and translation reveals more mockery than romance. “Tu n’es pas fait main rassis comme le vieux pain” -- she’s being told she’s not “handmade” (special?) and stale as old bread. And the “fleur” in the next verse is not comparing her to a delicate flower, but saying she’s like a quickly fading bloom in a pot. The framboise of the title is not sweet like the fruity drink. Mais en fait, it is blushing, red as a raspberry.
In the song’s chorus, the girl is no longer addressed directly, but is instead discussed in third person as the narrator analyzes her motivations and tries to decide if she is worth the trouble. His interior monologue is joined by the voices in his head created by the vocals in the chorus. Overall, “Framboise” est très bon and needs several listens to take it all in.
Bombadil spends much of Hold On pointing out problems and complexities of ardor. Robinson sums it up with the last line of “Sunny December” where he sings “love -- is hard.” Then comes the album’s twelfth and concluding track, “Love is Simply” with lyrics such as “love is simply something simple” and “love is easily something easy,” regardless of what Robinson stated earlier.
Bombadil has provided a happy ending. The song’s lyrics are pleasant but cryptic, like a riddle, the answer to which might unlock the secrets of the heart. Accompanied only by unpretentious string quartet alternating between delicate pizzicato and refined legato, Bombadil sings “Talk is complicating, tongues are obsolete, books that are overrated, tell us we should never meet.”
Perhaps the secret is to be quiet and let music do the talking.
L-R: Stuart Robinson, James Phillips, Daniel Michalak. Photo by Todd Cooper.
Ramseur Records releases Bombadil's fifth studio album, Hold On, March 24, 2015. Preorder information is available here.