A slow-burner that will stay with you given time.
Yet another lockdown project here, with The Remittance Men being a Boston based musical collective pulled together during the pandemic to give some local musicians a continued outlet for their creativity and, like a lot of these projects that have come about over the last couple of years, it shows that good things can come out of adversity.
The first thing to note is that The Remittance Men is a project driven by singer-songwriter, Tom Robertson. He’s the main vocalist here and the writer of all but two of the tracks. The other main man is guitarist and producer, Andy Santospago, but these two are backed up by an impressive array of musicians with some serious credentials to their names. Robertson and Santospago are joined by Zachariah Hickman (Ray LaMontagne, Josh Ritter, Rodney Crowell) on bass and Chris Anzalone (Roomful of Blues, Julianna Hatfield) on drums, along with contributions on a range of instruments and voices from Kris Delmhorst, Mark Erelli, Eilen Jewell, Joe Kessler, Danielle Miraglia, James Rohr and Dave Westner. With this lineup, you’d expect this debut album to be good and it doesn’t disappoint. Its Americana credentials are good, with strong country, folk and rock influences clearly heard and it all has a North Eastern flavour to it that’s a little reminiscent of The Band on occasions, and that’s never a bad thing.
The album kicks off with ‘1973 (Life on the High Seas)’ and it sets a good tone for the album. It’s a ballad that tells a story of a life lived with much adversity and it sets the tone because these are songs that follow the popular roots music pattern of telling a story through a song. These are stories about life’s events, wry and clever observations about places and people; songs drawn from personal experience and experiences of others. The one song that seems out of place on the album is one of the covers, ‘Nobody’, written by Bostonian folk singer, Tim Gearan. It’s a decent enough song but is more of a conventional love ballad that seems strangely at odds with the other, more detached songs on the album. By contrast, the other cover, Tom Petty’s ‘Down South’, fits seamlessly alongside Robertson’s own songs and sounds as if it could easily have come from Robertson’s pen, despite being a fairly straightforward reading of the song.
Robertson himself has a nice way with a lyric and there are a number of notable lines in his songs, perhaps the most memorable being from ‘Lonely & Silent’, where he paints a vivid picture of poor, rural existence that includes the line “And let the blood run down your arms from the tattoos of Johnny Cash”.
This is a good, solid album that gets better with each listening, but it is a slow burner and lacks a killer track to grab your attention from the get-go. On first listening it’s the Petty cover that stands out but, the more you listen to the album, the more Robertson’s songs rise up to stand alongside it and songs like ‘A Room In Birmingham, England 1919’ and the potential stadium anthem ‘Sweet Thunder’ emerge with real presence and set their hooks in you. Even the slightly corny ‘Hacienda Santa Rosa’, with its “Tex-Mex by numbers” approach, emerges with a certain charm that suggests it may have been written with tongue firmly in cheek.
There’s a great deal to like about this album; it’s good without being overly showy and has a nice, journeyman approach to it. Robertson’s voice is very listenable. It has a strong, lived-in tone that makes it rich and just slightly gravelly at the edges. Couple that with quality musicianship throughout and this is an album that should make people sit up and take notice, as long as they give it time to draw them in. The downside is that there has been so much good music around, over the last twenty-four months, that people are spoilt for choice and not everyone will invest time in a slow-burn album. Those that do will be justly rewarded.