Published on January 14th, 2014 | by Scott Ryan0
The Rustics, ‘Be Here Now’ Review
The current landscape of popular music is experiencing something of a folk music revival. Bands like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers are dominating top 40 stations with their boot-stomping, banjo-plucking jams and making it seem completely natural to see them side by side at awards shows with the likes of Jay-Z. And while people have again opened their ears (and their wallets) to the music of suspender wearing, acoustic guitar toting performers in these now superstar bands, folk music was never really gone to begin with. In fact, it has never gone away. Since the birth of the oral tradition, troubadours with instruments they could carry with them have wandered from town to town, sharing tales of their travels and plights through song. And while it may have moments in the spotlight, when people’s infatuation with folk music wears off, it hides in the cracks and lingers in the shadow of pop music, still telling stories and whispering its romantic ideals in the ears of those who will still listen.
If modern folk music tends to romanticize the image of the poor, travelling storyteller, then prepare to swoon over The Rustics new EP, ‘Be Here Now.’ Decked out in tattoos and dreadlocks, the duo of Ryan Miller and Mackie Hockett have said that their music is inspired by their travels together and you can feel it in each loving pluck of the acoustic guitar. Like early Iron and Wine recordings, the arrangements are spare and highlight the contrast between the complexity of the guitar picking and the sweet simplicity of their vocal harmonies. Their sound is obviously influenced by the Pacific Northwest indie scene; Miller’s voice is more akin to James Mercer’s bright tenor than Sam Beam’s baritone whisper. And while the comparison could also be drawn to acts like the Civil Wars, the PNW has staked its claim on The Rustics and it comes through in every element from the melodic electric guitar, drenched in reverb, to mentions of Portland and the Washington shore. Unlike some of the more popular acts that fall under the ‘folk’ genre, Miller and Hockett don’t seem to feel the need to be anything but who they are. There’s no attempt to adopt a 1920’s look or a southern drawl for people to take them more seriously. The songs speak for themselves and their tales of love, loss and life lessons feel hard-earned and true to their personal experience.
The EP opens with some lovely finger-picking and classic, wandering-by-train imagery on, ‘In the Boxcar.’ The song subtly adds elements like a cascading tremolo guitar and very light percussion, before Miller and Hockett harmonize on the hook, singing, “the only war we’ve been fighting is our own.” It’s a great introduction to the sound of the EP, which uses strings, ukulele and booming bass drums sparingly to build around the core sound of Miller’s guitar and the two voices. Lyrics like “I said father, I wish I could take some of your pain/ he said son, for you I wish I could do the same” on, ‘Song for Pops,’ feel personal and communicate the writer’s emotion without being overly-sentimental. If the EP does falter, it is occasional and slight. Miller’s late, heavily rhythmic verse on the mostly Hockett lead, ‘A Love Divine,’ takes the listener out of the song for a moment, feeling like an odd intrusion on the otherwise sweet duet. (I found an earlier live version of the track that didn’t include this verse and it was better for it.) Moments like these feel like the duo is trying to create an artificial balance between the two singers and it isn’t necessary. When the EP manages to find the sweet spot between the two distinct voices, listeners can truly relish the maturity of the writing, arrangements and performances. (UPDATE: I was informed after this was posted that the afore-mentioned verse on ‘A Love Divine’ is actually a guest appearance by John Blakesley. This makes much more sense musically, and I apologize for the mistake. For the record, I still prefer the version without it.)
Listen to “Be Here Now” by The Rustics
Despite it’s current popularity, many modern ‘folk’ bands seem like they are trying to wear the genre like a costume, the dustbowl revival image only a means to sell to their target demographic. This kind of music is really at its best when it feels genuine, and on the whole, these songs and stories feel so well-worn and dog-eared that they have to be true…even if they’re not. It is rare to hear that kind of authenticity and that’s what listeners will love about ‘Be Here Now.’ The Rustics aren’t putting it on: they are for real.
P.S. While the group has been mostly comprised of just the core duo, Ryan Miller and Mackie Hockett have recently expanded and added some new members to make the Rustics a full, live band. You can see them perform with this expanded lineup when they release their EP at the Bing Crosby Theater on Saturday, January 18th. The evening’s lineup also includes Cami Bradley and Hey! Is For Horses.