Folk has been given a renaissance — a license to stretch out and explore the true limits of its conventions — in recent years. There’s always going to be pedestrian takes on the genre floating around, ones that barely treat the possibilities with any sort of integrity, but there are a fair deal of innovators swirling in the artist pool. Although Bombadil’s sophomore full-length, Tarpits and Canyonlands, was released in 2009, it’s clear that this record captured a band rising with ample amounts of experimentation and ingenuity. There’s tastes of the Avett Brothers in the pot; the light rollicks of “Honeymoon” are as carefree and unhindered as its title would suggest, and the adjoining “Reasons” chronicles a tenuous love story with the same personal flourishes as that contemporary.
But where Bombadil shines is not in their emulation skills, but in their ability to completely revamp what it means to be a folk outfit. Circus-tent pomp washes over the theatrical “Oto the Bear,” where pop horns and a shouting chorus weave between fanciful, storybook-grade lyrics.
“25 Daniels” features the same fun, with a tale that rivals the zaniest Seuss. “Laurita” features lyrics in Spanish with instrumentals to match, as xylophone vibrates over languid guitars and gentle percussion. On “Matthew,” the curtains open around a lone piano, as a character portrait unfolds ripe for the stage. These tracks orient Bombadil as a group able to make a spectacle out of a three-minute song that infuses astute writing with almost-standard pop sensibilities.
It’s not to say that the less-adventurous cuts on Canyonlands can’t stack up to the ones highlighted thus far. The jaunty, mid-tempo “Sad Birthday” appears early and paints the band as fine craftsmen of piano-rock gold. Album closer “Kate and Kelsey,” meanwhile, lulls the ears into security with pinch harmonics and 1960s-era vocal harmonies to rival a young Cat Stevens.
Yet, in an album loaded with fifteen tracks, there are potholes on this journey. “Cold Runway,” with distant slide guitar drones, plays the folk-rock card to excess and clichè. “So Many Ways to Die” falls victim to its same error of textbook execution. But, because Tarpits and Canyonlands is a mid-career statement, it’s possible that in the five years since this album’s release, Bombadil has shed some of these safe hallmarks — because their more daring fare was all the more promising.
Cut at 45 RPM and directly remastered from the original analog tapes, it’s clear that the time that went into mastering this release for the format was time well spent. Aside from surface noise that appears at the beginning of sides (and more prominently at their ends), the sound quality is top-notch. The varied instrumentation on “Oto the Bear” remains unhindered, and tracks that test the range of one’s speaker system — like the short yet varied “Prologue” — remain able to reach these limits without much trouble.
Ramseur Records really delivered a premium reissue. The double gatefold package (although the web listing claims it’s a “triple gatefold” package) features a middle section which unties, much like an old-fashioned document carrier, to reveal 14 high-quality art prints designed by illustrator Robbi Behr and inspired by the inventive stories captured on Canyonlands. On top of this, each gatefold features an excerpt from a book based on the album’s songs. Each record is also housed in a printed inner sleeve, each of which feature oil paintings of the band’s members. It proved to be an interesting experience viewing these prints while listening to the records spin and it adds a degree of care that many reissues fail to include.
Aside from the flourishes captured in the packaging, Tarpits and Canyonlands was pressed on 180-gram peach marble and 180-gram red marble vinyl, and includes a high-quality digital download code for the entire album printed on a custom download card, as well as the previously-unreleased track “Barcelona,” which does not appear on the vinyl version.
Tarpits and Canyonlands has Bombadil establishing themselves as much more than a folk outfit, with their songs bordering on the fantastic and ethereal. Despite some loss of traction during its running time, it creates an engrossing listening experience bolstered by a loving reissue filled with enough extras to encourage a return to the album’s creative spaces.
“Sad Birthday,” “Matthew” and “Kate and Kelsey”
“Tarpits and Canyonlands” is still available for purchase over at the band’s webstore.
Photos courtesy of Ramseur Records