The little things. They can make or break an album. Doing them correctly can turn something good into something great. Doing them incorrectly can turn something OK into something awful. They are essential to the legacy of any consequential piece of art and the presence of such idiosyncratic moments ultimately prove to be more relevant than how loud a guitar can sound or how eclectic or fresh an act can appear. Without the presence of the little things, songs or albums wouldn’t be worth any listener’s time or attention.
In the case of Fredericksburg, Va.’s The Parlor Soldiers and their most recent effort, “When The Dust Settles,” released late last year, it’s the absence of those little things that decides the difference between this 13-song effort being perfect and merely being really good. And while most other local artists would presumably be more than happy to carry the “really good” banner, there are so many reasons why “When The Dust Settles” should be a flawless recording, thus proving its worth as just a tad bit disappointing.
Singers Alex Culbreth and Karen Jonas put a fantastically authentic modern-day twist on the John and June Carter Cash formula. It works best on “Crazy,” a bluegrass-centric countrified romp that features a type of call-and-response interaction between the two that works better than even the most popular of country duos in music today. Not only do they display a level of comfort that even most married couples have trouble finding, but Jonas and Culbreth do so with a sense of humor that is deliciously profane and notably connected.
“Long Gone” is another home run as the two switch from a country-western vibe to an unforgettable take on a Buddy Guy-meets-Muddy Waters type of blues. Its up-tempo boogie showcases an element of musical diversity as good and as interesting as any 2012 hipster-proclaimed Next Best Thing (cough, Gary Clark Jr., cough). One listen and you’ll be digging through your record collection to find those B.B. King releases you stashed away after Bono decided he wasn’t good enough to collaborate with anymore in the mid-’90s. It’s that inspiring and it’s that good.
Those two tracks alone lay the groundwork for what could be an unforgettable album that hovers high above any other release this column has seen. They suggest a duo so matured and so crafty, it would be impossible to think they weren’t destined for an opening slot on some Ryan Adams or Conor Oberst 30-date national summer tour, coming to a mid-sized outdoor venue near you.
Ahhhh, but the little things, you see. It’s always the little things.
“Lawless,” for instance, incorporates a kick drum that at one point veers off beat, making the track sound inherently low-grade. The misstep is so obvious, actually, that it makes the group as a whole sound less musically talented than the other tracks here prove they are. Then, oddly enough, Dan Dutton’s bass playing also adds a layer of imperfection, often overriding his mates’ output and drowning out the rest of The Parlor Soldiers’ sound. Sure, that can be chalked up to simply being the victim of a bad mixing job, but the problem is so noticeable, it makes such tracks as “Shallow Grave” and “When The Dust Settles” nearly unlistenable.
That’s not to say these tiny things completely ruin or overshadow the song-writing abilities these guys clearly behold. “Mess” and “Don’t Let Your Dreams Get You Down” explore exactly how valuable Jonas is to the equation, her voice providing a hint of Taylor Swift combined with an earnest Norah Jones-esque approach that leaves quite a lasting impression. “Sinner,” meanwhile, reminds us of how much atmosphere and cynicism a twangy electric guitar can add to a tried-and-true country-western formula. “He was indecent, he was dirty, he was never home by 12/ And let me tell you how it broke my heart, the way he’d sleep around/ He never stepped foot in a church, he was the scourge of the town/ So tell me how is it a sin to shoot a sinner down,” the two harmonize during the song’s hook, revealing what proves to be their greatest weapon: an ability to tell vivid tales.
Such is more important than one might think, actually. The art of storytelling is something that has long been missing from most modern day popular music, and The Parlor Soldiers should serve as a reminder of exactly how much fiction and prose should matter when crafting songs, especially of the Americana kind. It adds a sense of perspective that is otherwise lost without the explanation of the many details Jonas and Culbreth describe so well and so often here. But then again, maybe The Parlor Soldiers should also serve as a reminder for just how much the little things do, indeed, matter. Because had they taken just a little more time to pay a little more attention to a few of them, “When The Dust Settles” could have been the perfect local album.
Instead, it’s just pretty darn good.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***