The Derby Ram
ike a sermon summoned from the dense woodsmoke of a forest fire comes The Anomoanon’s sixth album, The Derby Ram. The first release on their own Box Tree Records imprint sees Ned Oldham and company piece together lyrics from the myths and legends of traditional poems and tales. In channeling that material through their own rusted-out country stylings, they’ve created a work wholly their own from words already spoken and deeds already done. The source material is as varied as classic Mother Goose tales (“As I Walked by Myself”) and traditional English rhymes (“One For Anger”), but as the tales float down from the pulpit and join their cryptic woodsy arrangements, any sense of timeless heritage is muted by their gift for engrossing musical composition. The lyrics may be borrowed, but the songs are their own, and the songs win out.
Quoting from the grand fair-day tradition of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and Neil Young, Anomoanon alternate folky flywaways with dense, menacing arrangements that spook like the night owl, crashing away in a leave-strewn hush and a stillborn pause. Toni Morrison might have described the juxtaposition as “storing up what he saw in sunlight for the shadow he saw the rest of the week.” They never wander too far from the light though, eschewing the lysergic-soaked country jams so many of their predecessors explored. The songs are tight and pointed, and their soft daybreak melodies pour into these grooves like country gravy. They know when to close down, and when to muscle forward for an extra inch’s struggle, and that gift leaves them miles ahead of many of their contemporaries (My Morning Jacket, for example).
Take one of it’s best songs: The seven-minute steel-hued epic “Bourbon Whiskey/The Derby Ram” which begins with rambling acoustic guitars that crackle and spark in their own dense cacophony. A fevered, whiskey-drunk chorus cackles in the background like a call to thunder and mud, only to give way to a buzzing synth that strikes into the heart of the song’s second half. Reminiscent of Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack, with its grumbling electric guitars and shadowy percussion, the song serves as a summon to the hills to replace fallen brothers, seeking known and unknown; an effort to smell their approach in the night’s unwelcome dusk. It’s a scarred massacre of a track that draws the rest of the album around it like a grave force.
Yet at other points, the Anomoanon makes time for a jug of wine and a dark tobacco puff. “A Man of Words” is a gorgeous jamboree atop moonshine piano and steady acoustic guitar. A dress-for-the-hoedown song, it’s as adaptable to thoughts of the upcoming night as to those danced and done. As the track’s slow chicken-feed groove slides into the stolid kick drum of “As I Walked by Myself,” the album pauses to reclaim its breath, awaiting the strut and the smoke left to come.
“Mary Had a Pretty Bird/Bluebirdy Jam” dives headfirst from the soft acoustics of the classic Mother Goose poem “Mary’s Canary” into a dark, greasy midnight spool of piano, guitar, and deep nuthouse bass stabs. The transition is as sudden as it is unexpected, and as Ned plinks away at half-missed piano keys, the sounds of rebirth and death meld into those of third and fourth sight, and there’s trouble in retracing where you were, what you believed, and what made you change your stance. Rest assured, it’s all different now.
With The Derby Ram, Anomoanon trades in sounds and traditions not seen much on the pop music market. Their coins are pressed from straw and twigs nestled along the roadside; sealed in form by tequila and tobacco spit; bound to outlast their need. They’re not much for bartering; they know what they have is worth weeding through offers. Sit around and listen a while, and you too might swoon in the sermon that issues in the weight.