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Bombadil Transcends Barriers

[No Depression]

By Sarah Fuller Hall

If less is more, then it can easily be said that Bombadil’s latest offering, Fences, provides an abundance of musical wealth with an economy of means. Utilizing a small group of instruments – guitar, piano, upright bass, smatterings of percussion and electronic sounds – and combining them with vocal harmonies, they have crafted an album that is simple and at the same time profound.

The band has nothing to prove musically. During the past dozen years they have demonstrated their command over numerous instruments and layers of sound. But now they have pared down their approach and are traveling light. Founding band member Daniel Michalak and long-time bandmate James Phillips have discovered a kindred spirit in Bombadil cadet Stacey Harden who stepped in last year, and has also stepped up, to assist with the task of reinventing the band.

The future seemed less bright two years ago when Stuart Robinson left the band right after the release of their fifth full-length album, Hold On. Ever since founding member Bryan Rahija stopped touring with the band in 2012, the trio of Michalak, Phillips and Robinson had been creating and performing music full time. The void left by Robinson’s departure caused some scrambling to regain musical stability.

Fortune shined on Bombadil, sending them Harden, a young musician with abilities belying his age. Before attending Berklee he had been listening to the music of Bombadil since middle school, honing much of his skill playing along to their recordings and singing their harmonies. With the Bombadil catalogue already in his wheelhouse, Harden made the transformation from fan to band member quickly.

The differing personalities and musical approaches of Michalak, Phillips and Robinson had resulted in a wide variety of styles which has been a hallmark of Bombadil albums. With keyboardist and composer Robinson no longer contributing, Fences is the most homogenous Bombadil album to date with all of its tracks guitar-driven and stylistically similar.

Rahija has been described by Bombadil themselves as their “wayward band member,” but even though he seldom performs with them, he has maintained a working relationship and has graced every album with his guitar artistry. During the uncertain months following Robinson’s departure, Michalak had the idea of writing songs based on guitar instrumentals previously recorded by Rahija. Four of the songs that came out of this process made it onto the new album. Pleased with the results, the band went on to compose and arrange other songs in a similar vein.

When Bombadil recorded Fences over a 12-day span with producer John Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco, Rahija joined them there to lay down the guitar tracks with his signature style. Just as there is always an extra ripple of excitement among band devotees whenever it’s announced that Rahija will be participating in a live show, listeners will be happy to hear his playing prominently featured throughout. If you are attending live performances of music from the album sans Rahija, never fear. Harden has already demonstrated he can handle the guitar work.

One of the album’s songs based on a Rahija composition was released early as a teaser for things to come. “Not Those Kind of People,” features a brilliant, cascading guitar huapango to which Michalak matched cleverly rhymed lyrics celebrating typical, if unsavory, human behavior:

“We are not those kind of people,

The ones that speak no evil,

Loose cannon righteous weasels

I’m never wrong.

And if you looked in our basket,

We’ve got hate that’s fantastic.

Funny how well we’ve masked it

Living so long.”

With its rhythmic flamenco hand-clapping and zampoña-like falsettos, the song harks back to earliest Bombadil’s incorporation of Bolivian elements in their music. (Michalak and Rahija first met and made music in Bolivia when they were Duke University students studying abroad.)

“Good News Sadie” is another case in which extracting a new song from a pre-existing guitar composition yielded great results. Its singable folk sound and hook refrain make this a song that might get stuck in the listener’s head long after the album has ended. Also, “Sadie” and the song “Is This Danger?” showcase a three-part Southern Harmony style which Bombadil seems to employ as much for their recreational enjoyment as for musical effect.

The album title Fences implies containment and emotional barriers, but Bombadil continues to wear their heart on their collective sleeve whether expressing affection or antipathy. The songs are more about defying obstacles than giving in to them.

Phillips, mostly known as the band’s drummer, stretches his vocal wings on this album, most notably in the song “Fence.” When he sings “I am a fence” one hears echoes of Simon and Garfunkel singing “I am a Rock.” The comparison goes beyond that of being metaphorical. The style of the album is reminiscent of early Paul Simon and other folk artists of that time, a style which Bombadil and producer Vanderslice acknowledged and embraced while recording.

The listing of personnel who assisted with the album includes the unique mention: “Nasir Bhanpuri – data science.” Bhanpuri works for a Chicago health care company making models to predict patient needs. He has known Bombadil since their Duke days. Last year when he met up with the band in a Chicago venue, a dressing room conversation led to speculation about what would happen if data science were used to predict what music elements would make a song most popular. The question led to Bhanpuri and Bombadil setting up a system allowing listeners to weigh in on preferences in Bombadil songs. The findings were used to help guide the band in their recording decisions for Fences.

A more casual poll would probably suggest Bombadil’s most popular songs are ones that deal with what has been the number one topic for songwriters through the ages: love. But it’s not surprising that Bombadil would explore a way to quantify emotion. They are, after all, the ones who named an album Metrics of Affection. And their current album contains a song titled “Math and Love.”

The brief, uncomplicated song “Long Life” is a re-working of a piece from an early solo project by Phillips. It has been expanded to include lyrics contemplating how time slips by, and wishing the good times could never end.

Viva Bombadil. Here’s a wish for a long musical life for a band that continues to beat the odds.