Not Free From Form
Natural Child lie in a sweet place between folk, rock, country and soul and Dancin’ With Wolves feels like a timeless record. It could have been written four, five decades ago. Problem is, maybe that’s when it should have written. It’s 2014 and we live in the future, so what good’s the past?
Natural Child is known for relentless touring and strong live performances and, fittingly, everything on this album sounds incredibly tight. These guys are four albums in and so far, they’ve probably received more respect than popularity. But things are looking sunny, as this is their most succinct effort to date and it appears they found their missing instruments when expanding to a five-piece.
Wes Traylor, Seth Murray and Zack Martin’s holy union began with a shared love for pot, but they needed to upgrade to five so that they might hold down long, entertaining performances. New Orleans’ Benny Divine proves to be a worthy addition on keys, with licks that consistently serve the song first. Nashville’s Luke Schneider is also new to the mix and he’s a musician who prides himself on his familiarity with Ben Keith’s catalogue, which explains how he became so incredible on the pedal steel. So the new recruits have a similar mastery of their respective instruments and as a group, they sound cohesive as hell.
But while the album is marked by expert precision, another defining component is run-of-the-mill songwriting. Just look at “Firewater Liquor”— the verse evokes an outdated sound that’s saturated with enough cowboy tropes to kill the Marlboro Man— but even the swaths of folks who vow that country is where music goes to die will be powerless to the organ-fueled groove that ensues. The album is defined by staple songs: “Bailando Con Lobos” sounds exactly as you’d imagine a novelty Spanish-language song; “Out in the Country” fetishizes the simple life; you’ll find your outlaw song in “Rounder” and the lyrics showcased in “Saturday Night Blues” could have been penned by many a bored fool. But here’s the kicker: very few musicians could breathe so much life into these tired templates.
This group of musicians is interested in admiring form. There’s the sense that Natural Child might not have made this album if they hadn’t forefathers like JJ Cale, Guthrie, Young and Dylan, and moreover, it appears that their aim is to earn a place in the same sentence. But here’s the problem playing the homage game– even if the album’s marvelously executed like Dancin’ With Wolves—you’re dealing with historians, not visionaries. And when the next wave of folk inevitably crashes in, the freshest bards will likely credit those same forefathers, not the revivalists.
When speaking about Dancin’ With Wolves, Wes Traylor said, “We got a lot of things done on that record that we’d been trying to do for a couple of years.” So it appears that Natural Child feel as if they reached their mark. I wonder what’s next.