Grand Folk Railroad

Alt-country quintet Jack Gandydancer are headed down the right track

As the clock ticks closer to their 9:00 p.m. set time, the band begins to fidget. Amy Eicher, vocalist/acoustic guitarist for Jack Gandydancer, plops down on an overturned speaker cabinet, stretches her long legs out in front of her, and plays with her short, spiky blond hair. She repeatedly tugs at her sleeveless blouse as if she's developed an allergy to the shimmering fabric. To her right, bassist Richard Morgan perches on the only stool in the room. With a shaved head and a neck that drops in a straight line from the base of his skull, this isn't a guy you want to spill your beer on. But his Vin Diesel-esque exterior is compromised by a pair of cheeks that become increasingly flushed as the minutes go by. Chuck Nelson, the other vocalist/guitarist in the band, stands up and begins rocking back and forth on the heels of his shoes. Both Morgan and Nelson--who wear nearly identical black sport coats over open-collar gray shirts, as if they've been torn from twin pages of a J. Crew catalog--glance anxiously around the room.

It's a Monday, new band night at the Fine Line Music Café. Jack Gandydancer have retreated from the thumping techno pop upstairs to a storage room in the basement of the club. (The door with the sign that reads "Band Dressing Room A" is inexplicably locked.) The group has performed numerous times in clubs like this one over the past year and a half, so it's doubtful that their restlessness is a manifestation of pre-show jitters. It's more a blissed-out sort of twitching--like they're 14 years old again and have just formed their first band.

"I can't wait to hang out with these guys," Eicher says of her bandmates. "We'll practice and then hang out and have a couple beers, then shoot BB guns in the garage. It's good times."

Jack Gandydancer's willingness to accept the fact that they're still playing for "new band night" is indicative of their humble nature. And in fact, themes of humility--of recognizing that loss doesn't equal failure, and that some relationships are often best left to rust--define the group's first EP, Sow Ears and Silken Purses(Jelectro Records). The album title refers to the adage that, as Morgan puts it, "you can't make beautiful things out of shit."

That mentality seems to characterize the band well. Simply put, Jack Gandydancer are alt-country, complete with all the jangle and twang. The influence of groups like Son Volt and the Jayhawks can be heard prominently, but a closer listen also reveals echoes of Johnny Cash and Tom Waits. Even the band's name conjures up the kind of historic Americana that seems to resonate for so many alt-country bands: Jack Gandydancer refers to the 19th-century railroad workers who appeared to dance as they maneuvered to drive in the spikes that held down the tracks. You almost expect--hope, really--that this means the band will dance onstage. But in fact they just slowly sway in place, occasionally adding a few head-bobs.

Alt-country is sort of like trying to win back a jilted lover: If it seems like you're trying too hard, or if you're trying to be too clever, you've blown it. The genre's appeal is in its simplicity and honesty, and throughout Sow Ears and Silken Purses, Jack Gandydancer beautifully capture those things. "Minot Switchman" sets the pace for the album, rumbling along lazily with melancholy metaphors about trains and chances lost. On first listen, the refrain "Sometimes no matter what you do/These trains just get off track" smacks of bland cliché. But when the lyrics continue, you can't help responding to their straightforwardness: "Maybe it's true what they say/Maybe I've lost my nerve/Maybe I've lost direction/In the whiskey this tavern serves."

Like all good alt-country bands, Jack Gandydancer are masters of a certain deceptive fluidity--the evolving chord progressions, the intricate give and take of strummed and picked guitars. And it all washes over you without any unnecessary complexity. On each of the tracks, Eicher's and Nelson's vocal harmonies float gracefully above the meandering guitars while the drums and bass lie low and steady. Things pick up briefly on "Little Lotta Love," a danceable ditty that has Eicher and Nelson hamming it up as a pair of bickering lovers: "I got a little plan/And I hope you understand/I'm keepin' the ring but showin' you the door." But by the time SkipYarian's plaintive accordion creeps into the closing track, "Pick Me Up," you find yourself commiserating with the band. You fidget as excitedly as they do.

"I think this album is representative of our lives," Morgan says. "You get to a point where a lot of great things have happened, and a lot of those things will never happen again."

His nostalgia might be fitting for a brooding alt-country musician. But here's hoping that Morgan proves himself wrong about the future.

 
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