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With so many bands and different types of music out there, it is a challenge for any band to get noticed. However, there are two fairly simple ways to stand out from the crowd. First is to have a structure that is unlike any other band. The other is to come up with a unique term for the kind of music a band makes. Gutter-folk duo Driftwood Soldier (featuring mandolin and bass) has managed to stand out in both ways. On the new album Stay Ahead of the Wolf (Trash Cat Records), the band shows that not only does it stand out from a marketing perspective, but also a musical one.
“You Gotta Stay” is a captivating song. Bobby Szafranski lays down a groovy bass line while Eric Sherman plays a horn part that gives the song an unexpected brightness. All of this goes on while Owen Lyman-Schmidt howls some vocals that rival Adam Turla of Murder By Death for their haunting tone.
“John Henry” is a song that has been recorded more times than anyone can count. That’s why it’s so surprising that this band can bring something new to this song. It’s not just surprising. It is a testament to this band. The bass line rumbles, which is fitting for the subject material of the song. The vocals at some points are growled more than sung. You’ve probably heard a lot of versions of this song, but it’s safe to say that you haven’t heard it quite like this.
There is a jazz component running through this album. You can hear it in “Put Me Down” and particularly in “Sunnyside”. It’s not just the horns in the background that lend a jazzy feel, it’s also the vocal style. Granted the vocals are still deep and a little rough, but it’s easy to imagine a well-dressed band playing “Sunnyside” on an old-time bandstand that is shrouded by smoke. The volume rises toward the end of the song and __ sings “Just cuz you sell yourself for nothing, it won’t make you free.” The lyrics hit particularly hard because of the contrast with the mellow feel of the song.
“Old Man Catfish” shows the strength of Lyman-Schmidt as a lyricist. He plays with some internal rhyme as he sings about a catfish who has “grown big as a bus.” He goes on to sing, “They call my old man Catfish. He’s got whiskers as long as a cottonmouth, skin as smooth as a grifter.” You can’t help but smile when you hear that line delivered.
Gutter folk is a good description for this album, but it doesn’t really cover how complex it is. As he says in “When It Ends”, “File me under whatever classification lets you rest easy.” That’s pretty sound advice. It doesn’t matter particularly where you file this as long as it’s filed under “good stuff”. This album is somewhere at the crossroads of Tom Waits and Murder By Death, and it’s done with the unlikely combination of just mandolin and bass.