“What's a carbon leaf?”
“It's a band. You'll like them. Just come on!”
April 2009. I was a Senior in my last month of college and “today” was the World Carnival. That's an event on campus where all sorts of activities are set up to engage the students and local community in art and culture(s), not to mention a lot of fun and games. But the highlight of that event was a free concert performance by the band known as Carbon Leaf. Except, I didn't know them. I had never heard of them before. Despite my friends' insistence that a song of theirs must have made its way to my ears at some point in the past, no lyric or melody they teased me with offered any inkling of familiarity. But they drug me along anyway. I expected a nice evening of songs that were easy on the ears though low in substance, but I left impressed beyond words! On stage were five men, each in complete control of every nuance of their instrument (and sometimes a few others too). As soon as I got home, I looked up all the music I could and quickly became an avid fan of the band. I've seen them live once more since then, soon to be three times, and have only grown to respect and appreciate these guys more and more.
As the band is currently working on a new album, I thought it would be appropriate to write something about their older new album, which came out in February of this year, entitled Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle! Carbon Leaf often gets grouped into folksy and Irish music categories. If you happen to have some of their earlier albums and import them into iTunes, for instance, everything from Indian Summer and back is listed as “Irish”. You can also sometimes find them playing events like Shamrockfest, so it makes sense that people might consider them somewhat Irish. However, the majority of their music doesn't sound Irish. And even when it does, as on their most Irish sounding record, Echo Echo, the song they cover called “Mary Mac” is actually a traditional Scottish folk song. Whatever...the point isn't that they aren't an Irish Folk Rock band. The point is that this new album of theirs, if there was ever one that lumped them into the Irish Folk Rock category, would be the flagship. No matter what influences the guys drew from, whether Irish, Scottish, or otherworldly, one thing is certain: This release is the most acoustic and folksy album the band has ever put out – and I love it!
One thing that I really love about this disc is the array of sounds we find here. In addition to the regular rock band paraphernalia, there are too many instruments featured on here for me to recall at the moment. Some that come to mind are the penny whistle, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and I'm pretty sure there's an accordion and bagpipes featured along the way. This is not only great on the ears, as each instrument complements a different spectrum of the sound and fills in gaps that the other instruments miss, but it also makes a statement about the talent of this group of people. The band is full of multi-instrumentalists, such as Carter Gravatt, who, in addition to playing guitar, also plays banjo, fiddle, and mandolin (and a few more things, I'm sure).
Some listeners may enjoy the diversity of sounds, but think, “That's great and all, but I prefer music that's catchy.” No worries there! One listen to “The Donnybrook Affair” or “The Fox And The Hare” will have you singing at the top of your lungs. Those are two of my favorites, but not at the least the only songs worthy of your attention. It seems as though every lyrical adventure, separated by several stirring instrumentals, call forth your voice to join in the fun. That's another thing that I love about Carbon Leaf: the lyrics. Vocalist and penny whistle extraordinaire, Barry Privett, in addition to having an emotionally rousing singing style (as if he's not only singing, but trying to tell you something too), is a brilliant lyricist. While some poems can be lyrics, not all lyrics are poetic. Barry creates imagery and twist of rhyme that are not simply inserted into a musical setting, but helps to mold it. The call and response in the chorus of She's Gone [...For Good This Time]” is a great example of this, with the music stopping to make room for, as well as emphasizing, two sides of a conversation. I assure you, after listening, you'll be joining in as well.
Carbon Leaf has been releasing great albums for as long as I've been listening to them. Alright, so they've only released two full length albums since I started following them, but both of them have been fantastic and not at all like one another. In fact, going all the way back to Echo Echo, I could listen to just about every song they've done without feeling the urge to skip it. But with the release of their latest offering, they have proven that they haven't lost their edge. In fact, they continue to become more and more proficient at writing catchy, diverse tracks. If you've been in search of something new and delightful, you can't go wrong with Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle. Plus, what a great name!
We Love The Underground's debut release, The Day The Devil Fooled The World, surprised me with its variety and passion. Singer/songwriter/guitarist, Brad Cox, laid out a tapestry of audible goodies for us that changed mood and tone from song to song. Thus, when Mouthful Of Graffiti arrived on my doorstep I had my doubts as to whether this sophomore release could hold up to the merits of the first. Could emotionally rousing songs such as “The Sharper Your Love”, “Writing On Broken Mirrors”, and “The Ties”, as well as the fist-pumping anthem of “Let No Hand Hold Us Down”, be beat by this new batch of tunes? I wasted no time finding out, snatching up the disc and hitting the road to spend some quality time.
Unlike the debut album, which is composed of a variety of songs that drift back and forth between tones and moods, Mouthful Of Graffiti seems to be grouped into something of an A-Side and B-Side. The A-Side is filled with heavier tracks full of powerful drumming, thick guitar riffs, and insanely catchy choruses. Songs such as the opener, “Fits Of Rage”, “This Is A Warning”, and the behemoth of “Come, Destroyer!” lay waste to the unsuspecting listener. The use of synthesized guitars and keys add a sinister atmosphere and depth to that final mention, making me feel as though it would be a perfect fit for end of the world movie soundtracks. The B-Side of the album cuts back the heaviness in favor of flavor. The beginning of the second half consists of great moody songs before going into the final two tracks entitled “Take Me” and “Eclipse”. The former harnesses the feel of a bluesy 1950's tune, drawing the vocals back in the mix and compressing them. Throw in an obvious punk-rock attitude and style with risque lyrics and you have a pleasantly unique song. The final song of the album begins with a meaty riff before it slides into a jazzy, lounge music vibe. It relaxes the listener wonderfully, allowing them to wind down from the musical adventure they've embarked upon and simply be carried by the soaring harmonized vocal melodies and horns.
When I reviewed The Day The Devil Fooled The World, I said that Brad Cox had a talent for writing great songs. The new record shows me that I wasn't wrong in the slightest, but it also shows me that he has a penchant for penning anthems to reach out to the deserted, the discouraged, the underdogs. On the previous record, we heard “Let No Hand Hold Us Down”, which called for people to rise up against injustice and make their voices heard. Here we find two outstanding enlivening tracks, “The Isolationist/So Alone” and “We Light The Way”. The latter is a call to arms for those who have been discarded by society, boasting that they are “the light” that was thrown away and can amount to something great if they use that fire birthed from their dismissal to their advantage. It's rallying cries and use of the occasional harsh vocal (which is new for this band) make it captivating! Meanwhile, the former song is my favorite on the record, full of passion and power. The message is so strong and the song so incredibly catchy that it could easily overshadow any modern radio hit – and I hope it's given the chance. The second half of the song takes me back to memories of listening to Guns N' Roses epic “Coma”. While certainly not copying the rhythm of the verses at the end of that song, I get the same vibe from both – a frantic verbal stream of thought that carries us quickly along to the end. While that may not sound like it, the frantic moment is comforting.
It would be too hasty for me to say which album I think is better, but I must admit that the freshness in listening to the new album gives it the edge for me at the moment. Both records are filled with great songs, fantastic melodies and hooks, and a great deal of diversity – though the recent release groups that diversity into tighter clumps than the debut chose to do. Brad Cox continues to impress me with his songwriting abilities and the intensity he instills in each moment that's been captured, such that even the more relaxed moments are filled with emotion. We Love The Underground is undoubtedly one of the best hard rock bands to emerge in the last few years and Mouthful Of Graffiti showcases exactly why that is.