New album reveals the measure of a band
Throughout history, no subject has been explored more in popular song than love. But Bombadil proves there are still fresh things to say on that topic with their fourth full length album, “Metrics of Affection.”
As the title suggests, this collection of songs seeks to gauge devotion while exploring the parameters of commitment.
The lyrics are very personal and sincere, celebrating the highs and lamenting the lows that occur in every relationship, whether romantic or platonic.
The album is musically outstanding, a testament to the time and painstaking effort that has gone into the creation of Bombadil’s latest opus.
They produced this album themselves, recording it at home. Without studio time limits they were able to coax the work into unfolding rather than forcing it to be completed. Their attention to detail has not gone unnoticed.
In a recent New York Times article, writer Val Haller chose Bombadil to represent the vanguard of neo-folk.
Their music is accessible and rooted in folk appeal, but at the same time ventures into other, more modern, areas of musical exploration.
Bombadil has transformed to the point where they don’t seem like the same band that a few years ago entertained audiences with catchy songs performed on an array of instruments which they traded among themselves in carnival-like manner.
But even then, at the heart of their songs were intelligent lyrics couched in delightfully unique arrangements.
Now they perform in a simpler fashion, placing more emphasis on the poetry of their lyrics and allowing the listener to appreciate the nuance and brilliant details.
Each member of Bombadil contributes his own personal style to songwriting and performance.
Bryan Rahija is a storyteller and an accomplished guitarist with a style heavily rooted in traditional folk.
Stuart Robinson’s classical training is evident in his virtuosic piano performances accompanying his Byronesque lyrics.
Daniel Michalak alternates between bass and keyboard and creates enigmatic, lyric-driven songs that manage to sound simultaneously simple and profound.
Drummer James Phillips brings precise pulse and punctuation, and as the group’s recording engineer, he has enhanced this album with more electronic effects and production techniques than found on their previous recordings.
“Metrics of Affection” encompasses the band members’ strengths and varied musical tastes, including elements of folk, bluegrass, pop, classical and hip-hop.
The blending of seemingly disparate styles is most striking in the song “Isn’t It Funny” where a vocal chorus reminiscent of three-part Kentucky harmony alternates with rap over a hip-hop beat.
While that may seem jarring in description, it is actually musical genius.
Michalak, who, following the release of their second album, was sidelined from performing for many months while suffering from painful neural tension in his hands, unleashes the frustrations of that experience like a competitor in a poetry slam.
But he’s interrupted by the recurring hymn-like sequences where he can, as the song states “sit down and reflect…” upon the words of the chorus: Isn’t it funny to think about the things that make us sad, like losing dreams, and kisses that don’t mean anything, and family, and the one time your best friend lied.
The time Michalak spent pondering the nature of life and affection manifests itself in various forms throughout the album in lyrics he has authored both alone and in collaboration with other band members. “Angeline” is upbeat and optimistic, “Learning to Let Go” couples a bright pop accompaniment with words of resignation and “Boring Country Song” describes incompatibility in musical metaphor set to a relaxed beat.
“Escalators” manages to harness stream-of-consciousness lyrics into two-part musical form.
The slower, free introductory section evokes fatigue caused by one’s own relentless thoughts: “If I lay down on an escalator, would you step on me, just a rug, tired of hugs and relaxation? I’ve given up on my autobiography. Cold coffee and a pillow days that feel slow are enough for me.”
But the poet cannot remain in this state of torpor since the music advances into a more regular upbeat groove and paints a picture of perpetual motion which, like an escalator, moves up and down in a steady stream. Michalak delivers lyrics like tuneful rap
Do you ever think about the future
what holds those invisible sutures together
is the doctor in
whatever happened to spontaneity
it’s my deity
and I’m in charge of me
let’s see how far we can walk with our eyes closed
each step raises the bar of uncertainty
our feet are wheels that ride the maze
that is my life my hour my days
Punctuated by the band’s bursts of vocal harmony and enhanced by trumpet obbligato.
Rahija is not currently touring with Bombadil while he pursues graduate work, but he is well-represented on the album.
His “Born at Five” is a moving three-minute summary of an ordinary man’s life.
The delightful “When We are Both Cats” has a folky sound created by open C guitar tuning and a meter that could accompany a Virginia reel.
Adding to the fun is cat-like tone painting by cellos. The piece feels so happy it’s hard to believe it’s a song about lost love.
In “One More Ring” Rahija expresses the emotions that are stirred up by finding small reminders of a past relationship: “If I find one more ring of yours mixed up among my things, I just might sell all my belongings to make sure I’ve cut all of my strings.”
The song’s vocal line ends unresolved, illustrating that when it comes to love, beneath the appearance of recovery there may still be an open wound.
Robinson’s songs “Have Me” and “What Does it Mean?” are both simply beautiful and heart-breaking.
His solo piano work, “Patience is Expensive” at the album’s halfway point serves as a musical interlude between two acts, a relaxing intermission. It is also left up to Robinson to conclude the play of passion that is Metrics of Affection, and he does so with the remarkable song “Thank You.”
The vocal line floats suspended over a softly churning piano accompaniment with an Ave Maria-like tenderness.
The setting brilliantly illustrates how gratitude can sustain you through the chaos.
And so, how do you measure love? Bombadil may have proposed the best test in the song “Escalators,” asking –
If I were to lay down on an escalator, what would you do?
a. Pick me up. b. Step on me.
“Metrics of Affection” is available online through iTunes and Amazon.com. A CD can be purchased from the band’s website bombadil.squarespace.com
Sarah Hall lives in Salisbury.