‘Parts and Labor’ is the first solo album from Big Medicine Head’s singer-songwriter, Bob Gemmell. It’s packed full of tales of the road, the struggles of working people and themes of personal redemption. Ranging from banjo-led songs to tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in a speakeasy piano bar, it’s a bit of a genre mix. Gemmell has a unique vocal delivery and songwriting style that could have held it all together, but sadly serves to make the whole thing feel a bit disconnected.
‘Trouble on the Wind’ is a wonderful track. Tightly woven banjo and mandolin with a catchy, well-written chorus: “There’s trouble on the wind and ghosts on the road, you’re a long, long way from home”. It suits his gravelly vocal perfectly and you can almost imagine Gemmell leading a campfire singalong.
Then there’s something like ‘Flowers’. A really sweet track but one which shows the flaws in Gemmell’s vocals. He is not well-matched to the high-pitches he is aiming for. Lyrics are overly complicated and can’t be delivered with melody properly: “bluebirds sing on telephone wires” hits the beats in all the wrong places. Then there’s just some really jarring imagery “grass thanks you for the warmth of your feet”. No, thank you, grass…
‘Architects’ and ‘Cowboys’ play a similar card. There’s something a bit off with the vocals, they occasionally sound a bit flat and that mismatch with the tune makes you stop and listen – but not for the right reasons.
‘Confessionary Tree’ is much more accomplished and the imagery is so vivid you can almost see the tree in the distance ready to offer you redemption. Mandolin and acoustic guitar take us to an uplifting chorus that invites us to “whittle your name on the confessionary tree”.
‘Parts and Labor’ takes us back to the vibe of ‘Trouble on the Wind’. This is storytelling at its best. Gemmell comes across strongly as a man of the people in this tale of hard labour for little return, set to a simple backdrop of acoustic guitar and Gemmell’s low key delivery. It’s a little bleak: “And parts and labor are all that we have ‘til our souls are released to the light”.
As an album, there are some stand out tracks (mainly when Gemmell is in traditional folk story-teller mode), but these are conflicted with more experimental tracks where the delivery seems to strain his vocals.