Digging up the past

Tumbling Bones sing sweetly on Loving a Fool
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  April 4, 2014


Tumbling Bones, currently on tour, will return to
Portland for a show at One Longfellow Square on
July 26.

If Believe, the debut full-length from Ghost of Paul Revere, seemed like a haymaker in the scrap for local roots vocal supremacy, then Tumbling Bones, with the brand-new Loving a Fool, prove they can take one on the chin and give what-for in their own right.

Of course, such competitions are the constructs of music writers with too much time on their hands, but it’s fun to imagine the two bands going toe-to-toe. Both take immense care with their harmonic construction, arranging their varied voices to emphasize dynamic range in ways that go beyond the standard formula of joining along for the chorus.

Each band threw opening jabs with an early and promising EP. Now Tumbling Bones have followed Ghost’s release earlier this year with a full-length debut of their own, equally impressive in its construction and execution.

But whereas Ghost lean contemporary with their roots, Bones go much more traditional, inspired by well-formed old-Nashville and bluegrass songwriting. In fact, they go so far as to include a Bill Monroe/Bessie Lee Maudlin tune, “Voice from on High,” that they recorded to sound like it’s issuing from an old cabinet radio, around which a family might have gathered in the days when there wasn’t much else to do after dark.

And it sounds sorta crappy, to tell the truth, like being old-timey just for old-timey’s sake.

Most of the time, though, the band succeed in mining traditional songs and affectations without coming off too precious. Maybe the best indication of this is that they bounce back and forth between standards and their own works seamlessly.

Those of you who listen to albums front to back might notice that Kyle Morgan handles vocals and songwriting on the odd songs to open: one, three, five, and seven. Even employed in different stylistic approaches, his voice is hard to miss, like Rufus Wainwright’s, but with more of a shit-eating grin. “Broken Things,” the opener, is a stand-out, with standard turnaround construction that’s warmly familiar and a flawed protagonist: “A wilted flower, a soiled gown/ She don’t have many unbroken vows.”

If they sound a bit like the Tricky Britches at times, it’s no surprise. They mine the same general back catalog and employ the Britches’ Tyler Leinhardt on the fiddle. On “Broken Things” he’s in unison with Jake Hoffman’s banjo, while on Rotten Belly Blues’ “Money Is for Spending” he trades licks with the electric guitar, introducing the first instrumental break and finishing off the second.

In between, Chris Connors and Tim Findlen rise up the percussion with hand claps and shaker in a way that augments the grit of the electric and is mostly noticeable for the void it leaves when it drops away. It’s the same kind of gypsy-jazz vibe that The Burners exude and that the Bones also ply on the minor-fueled “How They’re Rolling,” where Peter Winne just carves the song up with a bracing harmonica. 

Winne’s writing contribution is much more mellow, though. “This Time Last Year” is like Elvis doing “Blue Christmas” — just a little bit goofy, but with an edge provided by Findlen’s saw near the finish. It certainly has the feel of a Ringo track on a Beatles album.

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