Big Ditch Road: Suicide Note Reader's Companions

Big Ditch Road
Suicide Note Reader's Companions
Electone Records

The first five words of Big Ditch Road's new album serve as a pretty accurate summation of the entire recording. "Took a vacation," sings Darin Wald, as drum and guitar come galloping in behind, "state hospital." Suicide Note Reader's Companions, as the title suggests, is a brutally grim affair. The songs are filled with references to pills and institutions. The specter of self-inflicted death is always hanging ominously about.

It's been two and a half years since Big Ditch Road's well-received debut slab of alt-country, Ring, was released. Only two of the original band members remain, pedal steel guitarist Brian O'Neil and Wald, the primary songwriter and vocalist. They're now joined by a trio of new recruits--Ted Held on guitar, Amy Bukstein on bass, and Tim Baumgart on drums. But this is very much Wald's morose creation. In essence, it's his suicide note you're unnervingly listening to.

The finest tracks reflect this turmoil sonically, as well as lyrically. The first song, "Seven Hours," opens at a leisurely gait as Wald flatly unwinds the details of his hospitalization. Pedal steel takes prominence on the chorus as he wails repeatedly, "Seven hours ago I was really close." Then two-thirds of the way through, the song explodes, with a series of rapid-fire drum fills clashing against a whirl of electric guitar. At moments--most notably on the tracks "Saturday" and "Ghosts"--Suicide Note is strongly reminiscent of the Silos' 1987 album Cuba. Like that band's frontman, Walter Salas-Humara, Wald has a way of stacking up intimate details of daily life that build into profound snapshots of struggle and loss and survival. On "Saturday," for instance, the bristling guitar-and-snare-drum dance suddenly comes to a halt, allowing Wald to relate the buildup to a date. "I cleaned up my place, cleaned up my face," he sings. "In case it went well, in case it went well."

But the most devastating track is "Just in Case," which features Wald with an acoustic guitar--and an open vein. He's contemplating what will happen if his psych-ward vacation becomes a long-term reality. "What would you say just in case I have to stay?" he sings, sounding as if the effort has sapped every last ounce of energy. Hopefully it won't be another two and a half years before the next Big Ditch Road album. And hopefully, for Wald's sake, it will be a little more upbeat.

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