It’s been a joy to listen to the maturation of Adam Trice through the years. The Baltimore singer, who is the brainchild of folk group Red Sammy, has come into his own as a growling street poet who leans heavily on Depression-era guitars and lush strings. Whereas his ambition got in the way three releases ago, with “A Cheaper Kind Of Love Song,” he’s since toned back the rock and smartly unplugged instruments that he never appeared to have much use for to begin with.
That trend continues on his latest eight-song set, “True Believer.” Billed as Red Sammy & Some Charming Trespassers, this is the warmest, most competent Red Sammy release to date. Still prominent is Trice’s Tom Waits-inspired gruff singing voice and that 1933 National Resonator guitar; gone are all drums and an electricity that never quite suited the singer the way he wanted it to. With the addition of a sad cello and an even more melodramatic violin, this set aims for introspection and doesn’t mind the tears that might have to fall in order to achieve it.
Most memorable is “Barefoot In Baltimore,” a country-leaning jingle that could serve as the set’s college radio single. Not only is it one of the more up-tempo tracks here, but it also grabs your attention far quicker than its contemporaries. Then, as the final minute commences and Sarah Kennedy’s tasteful violin provides a theatrical backdrop, a set of gang vocals takes centerstage and the communal ethos add a shoe-gazing party atmosphere that is often hard for lesser artists to accomplish.
The follow-up, “Chickenwire,” slows it down with ease, proving again that Red Sammy works best when it wants to go full-on ballad. The structure is simple, but the accompanying strings add an impossible beauty and a sophisticated layer that this band has never before offered. John Decker’s Resonator then rounds the production out as Trice hits listeners with his most crushing lyric: “From the outside looking in / I see you’ve made a better friend / Broken heart in a frame / Here comes the refrain.” It’s hopelessly hopeless and all the better for it.
Almost as dour is the set’s epic, “Santa Ana Wildfire.” Spacey and poignant, it’s the only track that reaches beyond the five-minute mark and while it constantly sits on the edge of climax, it, somewhat miraculously, never bubbles over. Instead, it’s punctuated with Becca Jane Edwards’ haunting backing harmonies that set a tone that’s drenched in atmosphere. In fact, her work is perhaps the secret weapon of the entire collection — there’s something about those two voices coming together that will eat at your dreams after invading your subconscious.
“Heaven The Electric Sky” takes that added element and produces a worldly, Native American-style anthem, complete with the consistent pound of a single background drum. Playing off a riff that’s both repetitive and familiar, these two-and-a-half minutes are almost entirely centered around chant-like vocals that call back and forth between our two lead singers. It’s a first for Red Sammy and the band actually wears it well, providing a sense of authenticity with the allure of such a mysteriously attractive approach to songwriting.
Other spots fade in and out of significance. Opener “Caribou” kicks things off in adequate fashion, leaning heavily on the Americana aspect of the group’s formula. And then “I Knew You Better” ticks up the mood just a tiny bit, but when compared with “Barefoot,” it shrinks underneath its predecessor. Perhaps the most forgettable effort here, the song’s simplicity proves to be its downfall. It’s inoffensive, sure — and it definitely beats a good amount of Trice’s past work — but on a record of acoustic songs, it blends in just a little too much.
Yet that’s a minor quibble for an album unapologetic in its intentions. With “True Believer” Red Sammy & Some Charming Trespassers establish themselves as a tender, understated group that has as much success tugging on heartstrings as it does telling stories. Nearly a decade into his career as a musician, Adam Trice has found the formula that suits him best: Strong strings, affecting backing harmonies, and a palpable humanity that pierces through with each rusty note his voice emulates.
“I build this life inside a crooked frame / Everything looks the same, the rules of the game, some pleasure and pain / Well I’m getting too fat, my hair’s getting too thin, where do I begin?” the band’s leader sings on “Western Bound.” It took him a bit, but this is a set of songs that suggests Adam Trice and Red Sammy have finally done just that: Begin again.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***