FERAL - AROMATIC BITTERS
2015 - Self Released
Feral are an Oakland, California based trio who formed in late 2013 with Cindy Emch of Rhubarb Whiskey, Vagabondage, Sinners Tonic and Portland Wine Drinkers Union on guitar and vocals Norman Carley from Jerk Church on guitar and vocals and Ed Cagnacci from Officer Down on upright bass.
'Aromatic Bitters' is their first album, at least together, and they have been featured on Couch by Couchwest last year and this, as well as touring the West Coast and Canada. The reference to Couch by Couchwest helps sum up this band that have no airs and graces or pretence at being cod 'rock stars.' C by C is an online music festival for those who don't have the budget for South by Southwest and is an event that is pleasingly starting to catch on. There are no fanfares; just far from plain and even further from simple music by people who feel the music and live their lives far removed from those promoted by record companies. They are described as an 'Americana' band, no bad thing to be placed under this rootsy catch all umbrella, which means they can stretch and twist themselves all over the even broader 'roots' genre!
They have written some unusual but strong catchy melodies for an album that can't really be defined as 'country' or the myriad of other titles that are linked to country but there is a powerful 'rurality' to their music and thematically there are some strong country elements. In some ways this album can be linked to those spooky recordings made in the 1920s that, because they are so far removed from us, take on an added sinister otherworldly atmosphere. That is probably as accurate a summing up of this incredible album as I can come up with and yet after numerous listening sessions Cindy and partners seem to be developing and deepening their sound as I listen to the record! Impossible maybe, but the live feel is so real that you can imagine each play being a new live performance during which they make subtle little changes. In some ways a 21st century update of 'front porch' music!
Whilst much of the album is dark and often surreal, everything about the recording has a powerful integrity, with lyrics that have a potent, if dark, poeticism, strong melodies and vocals that cannot be ignored. They may not always be what many people expect of 'contemporary country' vocals but in my world they are not only welcome but are absolutely necessary to alleviate much of the 'wallpaper' music that passes for heartfelt and rootsy! Whilst Cindy's vocals have an appealing melodicism there is a noticeable underlying strength and determination that helps to root the trio to somewhere close to the contemporary world whereas Norman Carley's vocals are a force of nature that on occasions make Tom Waits sound like one of the Kings College choirboys who are so beloved at Christmas! Don't think though that there is only that rawness. His harmonies with Cindy are clashing but appealing and provide excellent and accurate colour for the lyrical content. He does have that deep, dark and quite incredible rawness but is also capable, as he proves on this recording, of moving into a slightly less raw, Johnny Cash territory. For the two vocalists to be able to project these often dark unsettling songs an incredibly solid foundation is an absolute necessity. They are fortunate to have on board Ed Cagnacci whose bass playing not only supplies that, but also adds to the musicality of these sometimes epic songs.
The instrumentation is all acoustic and there is plenty of edgy punk attitude from this trio who have far more musical ability and much better ideas than most punk bands were ever capable of coming up with. The fourteen songs are all band originals and whilst most of the themes have been explored before very few have told the stories with as much grit and reality as this trio. In fact, I don't think these songs are as much 'stories' as images of the sometimes harshness of life, perhaps on occasions theirs, with no sanitization or polish used to lessen the impact or to smooth the rough edges.
The album gets under way with a nice balanced acoustic guitars intro on Done And Gone before Cindy starts in with her vocal, soon joined by the dual harmonies of the other two band members on a powerfully melodic paean to love on which the suspicion that Norman Carley's vocal style is different to what you may be used to starts to take shape! Loose Ends has another nice guitar sound on the intro with a soft but powerful bass and Cindy's lead vocal before Norman Carley's duet vocal joins her on a song of a past love that definitely wasn't going anywhere despite the desire to have seen it through. Carley's vocal is the perfect counterpoint to Cindy's classic style bringing a depth and even more character to an album that is entirely different to any other country, Americana, etc album I've ever heard. There are not too many vocalists with Carleys whiskey soaked, gravelly voice, but it is not just a 'sound effect,' there is melodicism and character to burn in the vocal pipes of someone who on occasions makes Tom Waits sound like the already mentioned 'choir boy.' On About You there is the usual melodic acoustic guitar sound supported by the dynamic bass foundation for Cindy to lead another song with her evocative vocal style on the story of a couple driven apart and from the vehemence in their vocals, absolutely no chance of redemption! Carleys vocal alongside Cindy's is full of the passion and often scary tone of a mad country preacher who no one is going to argue with, again adding depth to an excellent song. Fluevogs and Bourbon treats the listener to a lead vocal from Carley that leaves Tom Waits in his wake on a melodic but dark tale on which Cindy contributes otherworldly harmonies as a counterpoint to the lead. Doomed Waltz again has Norman Carley on lead vocals with a performance that is almost restrained but still deep and dark, again counterpointing Cindy's vocal style on an 'almost' love song and as with other songs on the album the darkness of the vocals and to a degree the lyrics is countered by the melodic chiming of the acoustic guitars and deepened by the upright bass sound. Final mention has to go to the epic, both musically and time wise (eight minutes!) Holy Man, with Carley's slow moody, deep, dark, lead vocal accompanied by the melodic acoustic guitar, rooted by the powerful deep booming bass on an otherworldly tale that has some of the darkness alleviated by the lightness of the guitar which is never overwhelmed by the bass or vocal. And yet, at the same time that lightness highlights the darkness on a sinister tale that in some ways sums up a band that exists outside of our comfortable contemporary lifestyles, always pushing and nagging at accepted boundaries, perhaps in life as well as their music?
When we talk about 'real country music' or even 'real music,' this band, with their dark yet realistic songs whose power is emphasized by their sometimes uncomfortable attack virtually define both terms. There is no artifice; just fourteen tremendous snippets from life that for some may be hard to take, but none the less is an hour of music that is incredibly rewarding. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if an ever growing cult sprang up around Feral, so buy the album, soak it up and you can be in at the start of something highly original and not manufactured by television!