Railroad Earth

Last of the Outlaws

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Over 12 years and five previous studio records, Railroad Earth have continually questioned their musical identity. Their sound has evolved to such a degree that what initially "defined" them doesn't remotely encompass all they've become; they continually integrate new genres and combinations of sounds in an aural language of their own design. Last of the Outlaws is an ambitious, mercurial tapestry chock-full of deftly crafted, soulfully played songs, and more. "Chasin' the Rainbow" walks the line between country and bluegrass, but its staggered vocal harmonies, and the knotty interplay between banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, bleed and blur those boundaries. The title track finds frontman/chief songwriter/guitarist Todd Sheaffer folding in jazz harmony and phrasing (in a similar fashion to Pure Prairie League's debut album or Danny O'Keefe's Breezy Stories) in a timeless, elegant pop, played by acoustic guitar, bass, and mandolin, dusted by a forlorn piano, spacious electronic ambience, violin, cello, shimmering cymbals, and woody tom-tom accents. It's among the most beautiful songs in his sheaf. "All That's Dead May Live Again (04-08)" is the lonesome Celtic waltz that commences the labyrinthine 21-minute, seven-part suite at the heart of the record. Before anyone moans "jam band", know that its focus, taut discipline, and musical drama are not only engaging but riveting. There is no inherent circular theme, yet all of its parts are inherently linked. From that Celtic introduction, various folk traditions (from Appalachian to Anglo-Celtic), jazz, modern crossover classical music, country, bluegrass, and rock all enter and slip out the back door with a multitude of instruments -- including reeds and winds making appearances (pay careful attention to "II. Tuba Mirum"). Tempo and key changes, varying sonic textures, and a panorama of dynamics are all illuminated in this tightly constructed mass that nonetheless retains a sense of organic spontaneity while stretching each player to his limit. Closing movement "V. In Paradisum" is based on simple changes. Layers of strings carry an elegiac melody accompanied by banjo, piano, and bass. These are colored by bass drum, plucked mandolins, strummed guitars, and eerie reverb, and the work ends in a very different place than it began -- though ghost traces of its parts remain. The grooving R&B-tinged rocker "Monkey" returns the album to song-oriented terrain and sounds something like Jackson Browne fronting the Band. The sunny, airy, Caribbean-tinged rock and bluegrass in "When the Sun Gets in Your Blood" is another highlight. But the shuffling, backporch country in closer "Take a Bow" features winding dobro above fingerpicked guitars and mandolin, girded by a brushed drum kit. Above it, Sheaffer's baritone generously expresses gratitude and acknowledgment. Though Last of the Outlaws raises RE's music to a wholly different level, it remains rooted in direct communication that transfers emotion without artifice or pretension. This is music that comes from the land and embraces all that heaven will allow.

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