Photo by: Mike Meldon
I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you. - W. Guthrie
2010 promises to be a huge year for this great Queen City. Can’t you feel it, y’all? There’s something in the air, I tell ya! Take it all in now and don’t you dare worry cause it’s gonna linger all year long, baby doll! Lucky for you, beloved, the good news fell into my lap early this year, and I'm here to spread the gospel! It’s the first shot fired out of the chamber in the Cincinnati campaign to take over the landscape of popular culture. It comes in the form of a record made in a west side basement by three unshaven men in their mid-to-late twenties -- The Tillers.
While their first LP, Ludlow Street Rag, was an immediate call to action filled with a large dose of the forgotten gems from the Industrial Workers of the World’s Little Red Songbook, By the Signs is an infinitely more focused, developed & ambitious record. It isn’t just a collection of songs recorded for the sake of simply recording them to have something to sell at shows for a little extra gas money to get them a little further down the highways and state routes. It is an A-L-B-U-M, and it is somethin’ else.
From the first hammer claw banjo plucks & fiddle licks courtesy of the hands & fingers of Mike Oberst on his tune, “Cardinal Train,” this album displays an already tight unit (you should see them live ASAP, and you‘ll know exactly what I mean) growing by leaps and bounds before our very eyes as songsmiths of the timeless variety. Mike means it! Hell, if you didn’t already know it, he wrote this here song just for YOU! He did all of this for YOU! A modern day Johnny Appleseed? MAYBE! I do know this, though, he’s movin’ down the trail and doesn’t know when he’s gonna stop; but when he finally does, pals, rest assured that he’ll stop to smell them roses.
Oberst’s propensity for neglected “little people that make the world go around” history is best displayed on a track called “George St. Beat.” It tells of the long-forgotten juke joints & honky tonks of a pre-depression Cincinnati. Jason Soudrette’s bass drives this tune down them west end roads. Oberst rips apart a kazoo, too! And is that some percussion I hear at the track's end?! Aw, boys, you shouldn't have! In any event, this track absolutely smokes. It makes you feel real damn good, too. After a long day of slaving away at an unfulfilling job downtown, you'll want to go down there to those streets of which he sings and take in the memories of whiskey-crazed bluesmen chasin' tail and degenerate gamblers takin' your bucks after a vicious round of three card monte. You’ll shake that George St. Beat with every listen. You don’t know what you’re missin’.
The other side of the songwriting falls into the hands of the gentle giant of Milan, IN, Sean Geil. A disciple of the blues, Geil sings the sins of the loves gone bad as he's headin' down to the water to cleanse his soul on “Down at the Bottom.” Sure he’s done wrong, a few times even, but he’ll stop at nothing to get it right this time 'round. You will believe it, too, as you see yourself in the reflection of that mighty, muddy Ohio River with every word of the story he's tellin'. Hell, no one’s perfect, but you do your absolute damnedest for them ladies, right?! They’re precious & sweet as a ripened Georgia peach in the August heat, after all. He’ll be callin’ alright!
If that wasn’t enough, Oberst/Geil do their best Lennon/McCartney on the one song they co-wrote, “Mountain Song." It sounds like a Beatles For Sale or Help! outtake melodically, to be completely honest with you. You'll be humming the chorus for days. Mark Utley of Magnolia Mountain penned a work song about ridding the country's greed and sharing the wealth with the folks that he felt only the boys could sing, “There is Enough,” as well. Wouldn't you know it, that tasty little number fits perfectly into their canon. A small handful of traditional tunes that you’d recognize from their blistering live sets are also proudly sang: “Lonesome Day,” “Bed on the Floor,” “Ezekial Saw the Wheel” & a beautiful rendition of “Trouble in Mind.”
Sonically, the LP holds up with the best Ethan Johns or anyone else in Nashville can give our ears. It’s raw and honest but doesn’t suffer from acoustical flaws. There’s no lo-fi hiss. Everything sounds crisp and clear. Every note is heard. Nothing is buried. THIS ALBUM WAS MADE IN A BASEMENT! As Geil said to Tim Bradshaw, “folk is the new punk.” I think he may be correct. This record is for the common folks who got a raw deal, a bad shake, a short hand. Yeah, we’re all broke and pissed off, but we couldn’t be having more fun in these troubled times!