Album Review: THE SCHOMBERG FAIR – Providence EP
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It’s hard to define the sound of Toronto’s THE SCHOMBERG FAIR, as many of the mixed-genre labels used to describe the band provoke an idea of their sound that is somewhat cheesy or hippie – and this band is definitely neither – but apparently even the band has trouble with it.
The press release that accompanies their new EP Providence labels them ‘power-roots’, which evokes a bit of a nu-metal-meets-JOHN BUTLER TRIO, dreadlocked-vibe, while their self-described ‘speed-gospel’ sounds kinda hillbilly. ‘Folk-punk’ probably comes close in theory, though the associated bands that come along with that tag are leagues away from the style played by THE SCHOMBERG FAIR.
Unfortunately for independent up-and-coming bands the need for a genre tag is inescapable in promoting their music to new (and THE RIGHT) audiences, and THE SCHOMBERG FAIR has probably been hurt more than most by the injustice of this need, and the associated clichés.
Yes the band blends the punk/metal background of bassist Nate Sidon with the modern and inventive backbone of drummer Pete Garthside, the lyrical sensibilities of banjoist/guitarist/vocalist Matt Bahen (whose work as an outreach for Toronto’s homeless is an endless source for fitting lyrical material) and a shared appreciation for a pre-war blues and traditional gospel sound.
But to quote Sidon in an interview that appeared when inquisitively snooping on the net to get a feel for the band, the band aspires to play “gospel music with greater speed, intensity and balls without compromising the severity and seriousness of the genre”. That quality is exactly what no genre-tag can identify for this band – the honesty, the intensity, the darkness and tension so inherent with early blues and gospel, which the band masters and mixes so well with the complementing intensity and darkness of modern heavy-rock.
The band’s ability to match this dichotomy of sounds was pushed and explored to a deeper level on their 2011 EP Mercy, which garnered favourable reviews and touted a fresh, hard-edged take on roots-gospel-rock (still not quite right…). More of the same is found on Providence, which showcases a slower, heavier side of THE SCHOMBERG FAIR. But fans of the band – never fear! Providence definitely still has the trademark folk-on-crack (ugh #labelssuck) ditties that the band is known for.
The EP opens with an energetic drum intro, joined in quick succession by that manic, explosively fast picked banjo (can you believe Bahen actually lost the fingers from one hand in a construction accident and had them reattached?) and a fuzz bass, then a vocal call-and-response that introduces Bahen’s forceful howl and Sidon’s unmistakable baritone voice. It seems this latter low purr is found more sparingly on Providence than previous releases, or maybe it’s just that it is utilised well as a complementing and backing vocal to augment and – ahem – deepen, the mix, rather than as a standalone novelty.
Opener Touched By Fire is driven along at its blistering pace by the banjo, and it’s songs like this that lead the ‘speed-gospel’ tag to make a little more sense. Second track, Paper Planes, is a boot-stomping number that starts all guns a-blazin’. Powered by a pounding, galloping rhythm section, the song showcases a folk banjo atop a direct and forceful punk-like bass and drum combo. Like the first track, it continues at a fast and steady pace and builds to a loud and fuzzy crescendo midway through, before being stripped back to the ’12-bar blues’-reminiscent verse (it’s 16 bars, but captures the melody and feel of the ’12-bar blues’) only to build again to the ending.
While ‘speed-gospel’ is close to being a suitable way of describing these two songs – and many of the songs THE SCHOMBERG FAIR have written in the past – it’s the new boundaries the band are pushing that don’t quite fit. What they started on Mercy with the epic (and completely stand-out) I’d Raise My Hand (well worth a listen… in fact, MUST HEAR! GO DO IT NOW!) is continued in the latter half of this new EP, and it’s this direction that sets the band apart and showcases the exciting morphing of styles that holds so much promise.
Don’t Forget Me first sounds like a traditional folk lament, starting with a rolling drum beat in 6/8 time; it’s slower in pace than the previous songs and features a more traditional (read: not crazy fast) folk-style banjo and electrified blues guitar alongside a slightly softer vocal delivery. After each chorus follows a distorted, fuzzed-up, fat-and-heavy groove, but its major key and pretty guitar melody make it sound hopeful rather than ominous, tying it to the sentiment of the more traditional verse and chorus.
The absolutely rock-styled opening bass riff of The Fire The Flood sets the tone for the fourth song on the EP. Soon complemented by the banjo and a vocal blues wail, the strong and thumping rhythm section keeps the song chugging along at a steady, but still slower (for this band, anyway) pace. Overall this song is the most traditional sounding blues composition on the EP, but the difference is a heavy rock undercurrent that blends naturally and serves to emphasise the sentiments of the song. So far, this is the most seamless and interconnected mix of traditional blues and modern heavy rock on the release.
The band saves the heaviest for last: Black Crow River starts with a pretty darn brutal, and completely metal-sounding riff that only lets up to allow the storytelling narrative some space. This song is the only one on the album that doesn’t feature the banjo and is completely played out on electric guitar. Intensity builds over the syncopated backing in the bridge, only for that opening riff to reappear for the devastating ending of the song. Dark, intense, slow, sludgey, but still distinctly folkey, this will be a real head-banger live, and it totally works.
While THE SCHOMBERG FAIR is exploring heavy-rock influences more on this release, they are still – for the most part – a roots band with rock influences. Though they have a punk attitude and play fast and loud they are nothing like folk-punkers FLOGGING MOLLY, AGAINST ME or LARRY AND HIS FLASK (who will join TSF on their upcoming tour).
The dilemma of a truly representative label of THE SHOMBERG FAIR’s sound is not resolved by the release of Providence; if anything, the forward-pushing songs on the EP throw it more into disarray. This quality band with a distinct, versatile, and promising sound needs a genre label worthy of them to help gain them the audience and attention they deserve.
iM puts this quest to you, the reader: can you come up with a fitting description for the sound of THE SCHOMBERG FAIR? GO!
To help you on your quest, get Providence, out June 5th, and catch THE SCHOMBERG FAIR, along with Oregon’s LARRY AND HIS FLASK, for an energetic, booze-fuelled, roots/rock/blues/punk/folk/heavy/country live show on their upcoming Canadian tour (see dates below), including a date at NXNE next week in Toronto.
Moose Knuckles and Belt Buckles Tour 2012 (sponsored by Exclaim!) – Upcoming Tour Dates:
06/10 – Quebec City, QC @ Le Scanner
06/11 – Montreal, QC @ Foufounes Electriques
06/12 – Ottawa, ON @ Café Dekcuf
06/13 – Hamilton, ON @ The Casbah
06/14 – Toronto, ON @ NXNE Music Festival
06/15 – London, ON @ Call The Office
06/16 – Sault Ste. Marie, ON @ Loplop’s Lounge
06/17 – Thunder Bay, ON @ Black Pirate’s Pub
06/18 – Winnipeg, MB @ Pyramid Cabaret
06/19 – Regina, SK @ The Exchange
06/20 – Saskatoon, SK @ Amigo’s
06/21 – Edmonton, AB @ New City Legion
06/22 – Calgary, AB @ Sled Island Music Festival
06/23 – Fernie, BC @ Northern Hotel