Bombadil 'Tarpits and Canyonlands'
Ramseur Records band Bombadil releases latest CD without benefit of supporting tour
by Sarah Fuller Hall
Music is a harsh mistress. She seduces with her charms, then demands undivided attention and complete devotion. To some, she bestows pleasure, success and wealth. To others, in what seems random and undeserved fickleness, she inflicts pain and suffering.
Robert Schumann sacrificed his performing career, ruining his hand while trying to win more favor of the Muse. Charles Ives drove himself to exhaustion and collapse in his profuse but unappreciated passion for composition. Virtuoso pianist Gary Graffman now plays only with his left hand since pushing his right hand past its limits.
Daniel Michalak of the Durham, N.C. band Bombadil has persevered through pain to please fans and satisfy Music’s demands, his devotion fueled by sufficient highs of acclaim to make up for the lows of tour misery.
Recently Bombadil announced cancellation of the tour promoting the release of their new album, “Tarpits and Canyonlands” after Michalak’s tendonitis in his hands, a problem for two years, worsened to the point where he could no longer perform. His incessant playing of guitar, bass, keyboard and a plethora of other instruments, lifting equipment, driving thousands of miles, hours at the computer working, promoting, corresponding with fans, had all exacted a toll.
An ambitious, nationwide tour had been planned despite the departure of keyboardist/composer/singer/poet Stuart Robinson. When he announced on the last day of recording that he was leaving the band, their forces were diminished by a quarter and their progress by a mile.
Resting his stubborn hands in hopes of recovery, a stalwart Michalak continued to perform as vocalist while bandmates Bryan Rahija and James Phillips adapted arrangements, assisted in performances by guest player Dylan Thurston.
Robinson, who thought he had played his last show, was persuaded to play another last show, then another.
The previously hyper-animated Michalak, inhibited by his straightjacket of pain, soldiered on, his uncompromising hands mostly at his sides, unforgiving hands protesting three years of relentless concertizing.
In the arena of music performance, rest a day and you miss an opportunity to be heard. Rest a week, you fall behind. Take a vacation, the fans forget about you and your chops get rusty. So you force yourself to keep going, focused on the prize, ignoring the warnings.
And in Bombadil’s case, you produce a remarkable album in a concentrated and exhausting two weeks of recording. This is their third release for Concord, N.C. label, Ramseur Records, and their first time working with Scott Solter, known for his work with John Vanderslice, the Mountain Goats and Spoon among others.
Marriage is a recurring theme throughout “Tarpits and Canyonlands,” and Bombadil explores the topic with remarkable insight, considering they are four unmarried young gentlemen. In light of the band’s current state, marriage is a metaphor for Bombadil, which left its musical courtship phase behind and entered into the harsh realities of commitment.
Their first full-length album last year, “A Buzz a Buzz” possessed a more carefree tone of exploration and discovery, much like the feelings leading up to a proposal of marriage.
“Tarpits and Canyonlands” expresses a wider range of emotion: brooding, hope, regret, love, pain, escapism, reality. Just as their song “Honeymoon” proclaims “what lies beyond the honeymoon,” this album acknowledges that life is both hard and beautiful. But as the musical form of this song illustrates with its steadily increasing musical intensity, a marriage can continue to take on momentum and grow as layers are added.
A few tracks later, Michalak revisits the topic, pensively expressing stark reality with his solo song “Marriage.” But by the time they arrive at the final song, “Kate and Kelsey,” a folk-like proposal, the previous cares seem forgotten.
The album employs a classical form, including an overture, “I Am,” motivically derived from the clever song “Pyramid” at the CD’s apex. The minimalism of “I am” rivals that of Phillip Glass or Steve Reich before giving way to a prepared piano employed to accompany “Sad Birthday.”
Robinson may be primarily responsible for fewer compositions than Michalak or Rahija, but his distinctive creations are standouts. In his simply lovely “Reasons” his plaintive voice is supported by fluid counterpoint of Rahija’s guitar. “So Many Ways to Die” is actually a profound argument for life. Robinson tackles life and death even more personally in the moving autobiographical missive, “Matthew.”
Compared to their last album, Bombadil shows more restraint this time around, relying on talent, less inclined to show off their vast collection of instruments. But they again demonstrate they are capable of a surprising variety of musical styles.
A high point is the controlled chaos of the delightful “Oto the Bear” where they bandy instruments and musical phrases about with acrobatic prowess in a burst of exuberance, as if working off extra energy before settling back down to work.
Throughout the album, Rahija exhibits his fluent command of styles and the full range of guitar, including harmonics. Robinson’s classical piano training pays off as his technique comes to the forefront. Phillips coaxes an infinite variety of timbres from drumset and other percussion.
And when not taking the lead, Michalak fills the gaps by providing exactly whatever instrument or vocal harmony is needed. The album reveals none of the physical pain he was ignoring in order to complete the project.
Tarpits and Canyonlands was released on July 7, but with the band now unable to promote their new album through performances, its future is unsure. The work deserves to take on a life of its own and to bring the band continued acclaim.
Bombadil’s members’ lives and songs coincided, for better or worse, in sickness and health. Will this be their swan song and legacy? Or maybe it’s just the close of one story, awaiting a sequel.
Bombadil listening partyA Bombadil celebration and CD release party for “Tarpits and Canyonlands” is being held at The Golden Belt in Downtown Durham starting at 7 p.m. on July 11. Admission is free and it is open to the public. Triangle bands Luego and The Tender Fruit will be performing.
Since the band is currently unable to perform live, the new Bombadil album will be presented in recorded form.
The evening will include a display of art by IdiotsBooks, writers and illustrators of the packaging for “Tarpits and Canyonlands.” There will also be free food, and a raffle of Bombadil memorabilia.
For more information, visit www.bombadil.squarespace.com or www.myspace.com/bombadil.
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