By Happy Red Tractors
I reviewed the launch gig for the 'Devil's Dream' EP by Happy Red Tractors too, and I'm more than a little reticent about reviewing this CD after having watched them live. With them having been such a great live act, and with the few criticisms I did have being what they were, I wonder if their music will effectively transfer to CD. As you can see from my score of 3 out of 5, they are successful up to a point.
I'll get the negatives out of the way now, as there's plenty of good stuff to get to, and I'd like to leave the review on a high.
My worry from the gig, about whether or not some of the instrumental parts have simply been thrown together rather than thought out and written, is realised almost immediately on the EP, and it affects the quality of some of the playing as well.
The banjo and mandolin combine for an intro in which neither seems to know quite what they're supposed to be playing. If it had been me, I would have removed the intro entirely, as it's a poor start to a good EP. There's wrong notes aplenty, and it comes as a relief when the first song, 'Salt Creek,' flies in with a flurry of that joie de vivre that made the live event so special.
However, I regret that some of those playing problems persist, with one or two instruments still fluffing their lines. I always feel that the difference between a CD and a live performance is rather like the difference between a film and a play. For the play, you accept that there has to be a certain amount of willing-suspension-of-disbelief - the lighting, props, sparse backdrops, and most of all atmosphere, suggest the gaps which you then fill in for yourself - while for the film there is no atmosphere and you need all the gaps filling for you; CGI, animatronics and bloody huge swords.
So it goes with a CD; the things you gloss over when listening to a live band are thrown into sharp and ugly relief. For a solo act, it may be a case of bringing in more instruments to fill the sound out. For a band, it's making damn sure the songs are played right. There's no getting around duff notes and wrong turns on a CD, because they're there every time you listen to it. All you can do is go back, do it again, and keep doing it until you do it right... and I regret that this hasn't been done for this EP.
It's a shame too, because I really like this band. I get the feeling that they may have recorded the CD completely live, as a full band, in order to retain the wonderful energy that they have when they play together. That is a very, very hard thing to do, and may be the reason that mistakes have been left in. I could forgive it for that, but 'Devil's Dream' isn't billed as a live recording, so it makes me wonder what the hell they're playing at.
However, thankfully that's the negative stuff over with, and it's all plain sailing from now on in. In the task of retaining the energy from their live performances, a major worry when recording, I'm pleased to say they have been wholly successful. This is by far and away the hardest thing to do when laying down tracks, and they've done it in spades. You can feel the fact that they're enjoying themselves oozing out of this EP, and it makes listening to it so much more of a pleasure.
'Salt Creek' is an upbeat, instrumental celebration, and happily bounces along for three minutes or so, taking my spirits with it. 'Marrionette,' while suffering from perhaps some of the lyrical pretensions mentioned in the live review, is a lovely waltz with a sweet vocal and catchy melody, and I would happily listen to it over and over.
My favourite track from the EP by far is 'Badger.' It opens with a wonderful eastern-European sounding violin piece, melancholy, slow and soulful. This then gives way to a faster-paced section which, while still retaining the eastern-European feel, somehow manages to incorporate a feeling of sea shanties and old-England. What is most surprising is that the chorus then manages to shift seamlessly into Latino, which nonetheless doesn't feel out of place, and then shift back to the eastern-European-old-England-sea-shanty without so much as a blink. You can't hear what the lyrics are saying, but I've been led to understand that the song is about beer, so it wins on that front too.
'Concertina Reel' is another upbeat instrumental piece, while the title track, 'Devil's Dream,' is a fine example of that emo-come-country-and-western thing I was talking about. It's got that blue-grass feel to it, but the way the vocals are delivered reminds me of bands like Blink 182, while the lyrical content throws me toward something a bit more emo than that. It's hard to pin down, and I like that.
All in all then, this is a good effort. I would perhaps not buy this CD entirely on its own merits, but I would heartily recommend going to see this band live, and buying it from them there. That way, when you listen to it, you can remember the willing suspension of disbelief you had when watching them live, forgive the playing errors, and enjoy it for what it is - a joyous expression of live energy and wonderful tracks, successfully pinned down onto a CD.