It's Oh So Quiet

They've been fine this whole time, here in your thoughts: Bellwether
Tony Nelson

There's nothing like a good surprise. Just more than 18 months ago in these pages, I reviewed Bellwether's self-titled second disc. I suggested that the local roots-rock quartet suffered from a serious case of the blahs, and offered that a healthy dose of swagger and grit just might be the cure. On Home Late, Bellwether ignores that advice, to which I can only respond: Bravo.

A sleepy, off-handed album, Home Late was recorded last winter in sessions that, according to the band's Web site, were intended to fend off cabin fever, not to craft a followup. Maybe such informality freed the foursome of self-imposed restrictions on their sound. In any case, Home Late chucks the heartland roots-rock blueprint in favor of a loose, lo-fi approach that complements Eric Luoma and Jimmy Peterson's spare words and bare voices--and the accompanying wood and ringing wire.

The songs themselves aren't extraordinary: The first half of the disc consists of simple folksy melodies and lonely-heart lyrics that seemingly don't have a lot to say. But chief songwriter Luoma's narratives are sprinkled with interesting images, surprising turns of phrase ("My dreams are empty aircraft, flying low so you can't track it," he murmurs on the title cut), and slight, biting humor ("I've been fine this whole time, here in your afterthoughts"). "Make Your Goodbyes" is the most conventional story-song, offering such detailed instruction to prospective fugitives that it should be required listening for former Enron executives. Elsewhere, the sound of the words is frequently more intriguing than what the words signify, as in the percussive verses of "Dim Light": "In a dim-light afternoon desk in a box/Sat a half-lit half-wit home for the lost," Luoma sings. His sleepy tenor and Peterson's deeper twang never sounded better in harmony than on this disc.

Recorded by Mike Wisti of the Rank Strangers, the cuts are rough, full of incidental creaks and fuzz. But don't confuse this seeming nonchalance for sloppiness: The inclusion of those imperfections, along with bits of chatter and laughter between some tracks, is a fully conscious aesthetic choice. Coupled with the judicious use of reverb and mic placement that captures the empty echo of the studio, these effects give the album an intimate tone that's the sonic opposite of Bellwether's squeaky-clean second disc. And while all four band members are more than competent players, the restraint they display throughout Home Late is among the disc's defining characteristics. In addition to rhythm guitar, Luoma adds occasional color with harmonica or banjo. Lead guitarist Peterson barely solos. Bassist Phil Tippin and drummer Michael Wirtz stick to simple shuffles and slow, snare-heavy train beats.

If earlier incarnations of Bellwether didn't seem to grasp the immutable equation Chops Do Not Equal Soul, then the band couldn't have looked to better role models than Razz Russell (fiddle) and Eric Heywood (steel), who could probably make Kraftwerk sound warm. Russell's scraping, sawing bow carries "Home Late" and decorates "Dim Light," while Heywood--in one of his last local projects before he moved to Los Angeles--spins a shimmering backdrop for nearly every track. Those dreamy atmospherics carry the disc's second half, which contains mostly low, slow mood pieces that suggest the Red Red Meat songbook, or Bellwether buddy and sometime local Bob McCreedy's old band, the Volebeats. "Betweenville," "The Lake," "West End," and "Shallowing" don't achieve the heights suggested by those comparisons, but they do mark an unexpected and promising shift in Bellwether's sound.

Pleasantly surprised by Home Late, I pulled its predecessor from the stacks and gave it a fresh spin. I can now say with the benefit of hindsight that I may have been too kind to Bellwether, which only increases my appreciation for the band's latest. The Bellwether Web site says they're planning another album already. Here's hoping Home Late is not an anomaly, but the beginning of a trend.

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