Thomas Wesley Stern invokes images far removed from the northern lifestyle that most of us know. This is a band that uses a modern approach to salute a simpler time of the distant past, which is funny because I’ve heard that they recently been accused of (hold your breath for it) utilizing the power of electric instrumentation.
Like al-Qaeda chatter, journalist feeds whisper and lament, shaking heads of disappointment at a group that cut its musical teeth on the ample sounds of the faraway folk lands. Traditionally shrouded in rich, vibrant acoustic instrumentation, Thomas Wesley Stern are finding out what restless artists before have discovered, namely, it’s okay to plug in and keep going your own way.
Thomas Wesley Stern are attempting to evolve, and with that effort comes two goals that I wish them success with on this record. Number one is that they are pursuing an undeniable direction of growth while maintaining their believability, and two, that they are opening a door to a much broader and musically untapped fanbase that needs to find this band of variable troubadours.
Their latest self-titled release features 10 dynamic gems that swirl in the influential tornadoes of everything from subtle melancholy of Iron And Wine to the vocal harmony magic of bluegrass bands such as Trampled By Turtles or The Infamous Stringdusters.
When researching some TWS info, I came across the interesting promo wordage about how this band allegedly got its start down in the seasoned Hudson River sloop houses of New York, and, as their bio states, “Civil War Era Chapels.” Whether that’s true history or promotional band legend, TWS set upon the job of embracing the musical ghosts from generations of back-porch musicians and southern-born slaves and converting their past with the bold new sounds of this latest disc. The one thing that I’m sure about is that these Jackson, New Jersey players have the gifted genetics that enable them to hone in on a musical originality that most their age would bypass on the way to the Bon Iver rack.
The first song on the CD immediately takes firm position for the feel of this disc. “I Don’t Wanna Be Like This Anymore” swings onto the platter with fat, full-toned electrics, bass and drums before settling back under the vocal leadership of Joe Makoviecki. The vocal harmonies and compositional melodies are spot-on, and I’m a big fan of the arrangement and chord choices. This song seems to glide on boxcar cruise control, shifting dynamic direction as drum guy James Herdman accents the verse bridges with smart, high-hat meter before slipping back to the ride and snare hit. Simple, engaging and commercially viable, “I Don’t Wanna Be Like This Anymore” will have radio DJs declaring discovery at more than one station.
“Shake It Out” is a beautiful and toned vocal display that has made this quartet a standout since their inception. The vocal abilities of TWS stack steady, unique in their layering and bringing back golden memories of vocal harmonizers such as John Flansburgh and John Linnell (They Might Be Giants) as they push through acoustic strumming patterns that intertwine in the violin melancholy of the song’s theme. Kudos goes to guest background vocalist Anthony Cunard throughout this whole offering. Minor chords burst into major key glee before tumbling back into the gray blue beauty of the choruses. Single acoustic lead lines bend this traditionally aimed song to its finish.
The band drops into the traveler’s period on “Far I Roam.” Accordions sizzle and sigh as the snare marches the group into the verse. Makoviecki takes the listener far from their place of origin, telling tales of the road, discoveries of emotional unrest, love and solitude as the theme wraps back into relationship patterns all of us know too well. The trumpet work of James Doyle pierces the air, adding yet another interesting layer of sound to this tale of unbridled wanderlust.
Skipping around the disc, I came across an impressive little song called “Under The Sea.” Clarinet work comes courtesy of Jim Doyle and puts this multi-timbre harmonizer on an elevated shelf. Drum roll rhythms sift sparse bass and music box instrumentation down onto hooky, honest choruses that immediately brought me back to the folk/pop sensibilities of the mid-1950s. Banjos bark in the back as Makovieki laments the age-old quandary of love and the enjoyable pain it radiates. I love the lyric, “We may live, underneath a bridge, maybe that might maybe be enough. We’ll have a text message conversation when our phones are off; we’re bouncing lights off the Empire State Building’s wall. When we find the Jesus in your head, the world beyond becomes a newlywed.”
“Say It Now” comes in on banjo sweep as the band blends like a reincarnation of Buddy Holly & The Crickets. One of the main things I love about this group is their level of song construction. Their knowledge of melodic application is on par with bands such as North Carolina’s Delta Rae, a band that was signed by Warner chief Seymour Stein after one listen. That’s the level of soul these guys possess. “Say It Now” takes its time, organizing acoustic dynamics and whirling the listener into the middle of the magic.
Another contender for radio is “Naturally Happens.” This is a left turn into commercial territory for TWS as they explore a glittery 1960s meets Ben Folds avenue of catchy, in the pocket rock and roll. Choruses are straight out of a Del Shannon odyssey as the band utilizes glimmering compositional license, immortalizing the revelations of a love that’s always meant to be. Drums are great here as Herdman tags the backbeat, laying down the vibe for stark bass and shimmering electrics before James Doyle comes in with an Andy MacKay (Roxy Music) sax solo that solidifies the bridge while guitars dart from underneath and back into that ultra catchy chorus.
“Blues Fade Away Part II” is a perfect example of the mixing of style and vision into an exciting hybrid of rock and roll originality. Accordions and acoustic guitars dance as vocals take command of the verse. Electrics pluck chimed patterns and single note lines into the bridge, waiting for Makoviecki to return. TWS manages to keep the muzzle on this ode to unrequited love until 3:45 into the song. Here is where the song explodes in a blaze of electric, tube-fueled guitar grit, thick drums and speaker rattling bass. This is the rebellion of TWS and they announce it with loud, Crazy Horse guitars that fire blitzkriegs of emotive soul-searing lead work into the very heart of this song before sinking back into the banjo and apocalyptical vocal ending.
The disc sums up with a more traditional TWS song by the name of “Roll, Water, Roll.” This is a sound I grew up with in Kentucky. Whether it’s about a river or the sea, the feeling is the same. The Cumberland River rose from its massive banks, breaching flood walls and destroying over 200 homes as neighbors looked on helplessly. And while the band may be singing of another occurrence (who knows?), it hit me with memories of our own lost community and residents that were swept away and never found. TWS harmonize with the genuine backwoods fatigue of an experienced river dweller eyeing the coming devastation of the flood. The somber horn work of Jim and James Doyle marches unwaveringly, as violins turn the wheel of gut-sinking alarm.
Whether you’re a fan of days gone by or of their present moment, Thomas Wesley Stern is a band that delivers timeless promise as a part of New Jersey’s rich musical heritage. Like River City Extension and Brick + Mortar, their unique understanding of story and musical risk are the perfect blend of ingredients that will see them climb far up the ladder of musical success both here and the world beyond. Thomas Wesley Stern is: Joseph Makoviecki, James Black, Gary Mayer and James Herdman.
For more information on Thomas Wesley Stern and this laudable new album, head over to soundcloud.com/thomaswesleystern.