I bought Tinderbox at a recent Fred Eaglesmith show in Irvington, New York. Yes, you read that right--bought it. Everyone knows that music writers get their CDs for free but although Fred's merch- lady/drummer Kori Heppner offered, I declined to accept a freebee for review. As a former touring musician, I know that CD sales account for a good portion of a band's income on the road (especially at current petrol prices), and as a music lover I figure that sometimes you just have to put your money where your mouth is. I also bought their latest DVD Live Below Sea Level, chronicling a series of 2006 band performances in the Netherlands. If you have never seen Fred and his band live, or have but reside in one of those deprived areas of the U.S. that he rarely tours (like New York), it is a must have for that Fred fix when you need one. It also is a chance for newcomers to see the late force-of-nature Willie P. Bennett in the band--his presence will ever be missed. Bennett's electric mandolin, often played with a slide and through a distortion pedal, and keening vocals lent an air of anarchy that was a perfect foil to Eaglesmith's intense, hilarious, spontaneous, but definitely controlled performances.
The post-Willie show in Irvington was still classic Eaglesmith: spectacular songs, perfectly--but not slickly--played, interspersed with barbed humor. Fred had no trouble with tweaking the well-heeled crowd with jokes aimed at their comfortable suburban lives. But a Fred record can be different animal, particularly when it receives heavy input from producer Scott Merritt. Merritt's hand was light on the last studio effort, Milly's Café, but here harks back more to the collaborations of 50 Odd Dollars and Lipstick Lies & Gasoline, meaning that, in addition to great songs, Tinderbox houses a sonic marvel.
If the songs on Milly's Café were a collection, those on Tinderbox are more a song-cycle, treading some of the same territory as the Paul Thomas Anderson movie, There Will be Blood. The CD package sports photos of rural people, heads bowed in prayer. The song lyrics mix images of hardscrabble farming, drought, desire and hell-fire in a more abstract way than is usual for this master storyteller. Eaglesmith casts his skeptic's eye on the kind of religion that keeps "taking Jesus back off of the cross." At the same time, he is obviously a man with his own brand of belief, and you will want to keep a glass of water handy, because as is his habit, he inhabits this land of deprivation and faith so completely that you can darn near taste the dust of the barren fields on your tongue.
Given the general nature of the lyrics, Merritt's production touches go a long way towards filling in the blanks. Percussion clangs like pots and pans, keyboards sound like they were found in an old barn, banjos like they were pulled down of the wall of the local bar. All this adds immeasurably to the classic Eaglesmith sense of place. The Ontario producer also encourages the songwriter's experimental side: narrating female voices mix with atmospheres for a Clothesline Revival effect; and distorted, dissonant guitars combine with jagged rhythms to recall the outer limits of Tom Waits' efforts.
Through it all Eaglesmith tenders low key, occasionally indecipherable vocal performances that add to the atmosphere. Buy the CD with the lyric sheet, because you could easily lose the subtle meanings contained therein. "The Light Brigade" sounds for the most part like the hero's return of a war-weary soldier. That is until you catch the line, "Brother would you like to buy a box of matches?" at which point it could be a metaphor for a country that wages war overseas as its infrastructure and economy fall apart at home.
When Fred and Scott Merritt work together like this they define how a recorded experience differs from a live one. For the live Fred, go to a show if you can, or pick up the DVD; for the recorded one, grab Tinderbox. There isn't a bad Fred Eaglesmith record in existence, but this one is a masterpiece. • Michael Ross
you might enjoy our interview with Fred (from a few years back)