It’s been four and a half years since James Ellsworth & the Dynasorrows released Heart on Sleeve, a collection of songs tracing Ellsworth’s breakup with his former girlfriend. As breakup records go, Heart on Sleeve surely ranks with Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Beck’s Sea Change. (Everyone has their own list, of course. Though universal, breakups and the albums that people sob over are very personal.) After Heart on Sleeve, Ellsworth and his Dynasorrows became Clusterfolk, a name that better suits band’s diffuse style and influences. With Circle the Wagons, which comes out October 1, Clusterfolk cleave musically to the template of the earlier release but abandon glorious misery in favor of hope, oddballs, canines and cowboys.
The disc starts off with “Dusk,” one of four instrumentals on the record, a short song that serves nicely as a prelude to “Circle the Wagons.” The title cut opens with Ellsworth playing a rolling guitar riff that churns up images of dusty Conestoga wagons jostling across the prairie. A fiddle (courtesy of Sean Hoffman) glides in momentarily, and the tension builds as the playing slows to a few strums per measure.
The lyrics tell of the aftermath of relationship gone bad. The suffering has peaked and it’s buck-up time, pardner. When Ellsworth sings “I’m gonna circle the wagons / and shore up my heart / I’ll drown my dreams and dragons / and conjure a new start,” you just know the storm is over and better days are here.
Nearly all of the elements that make Clusterfolk such a unique band appear in the title cut: Duane Eby’s spectral acoustic guitar work, with his brilliant E-bow and effects use, hovers and swoops. Dave Kartholl provides a yeoman’s acoustic bass line throughout most of the song, a fitting clip-clop. Sarah Ellsworth handles backing vocals and percussive elements with aplomb.
The departure of Dan Halferty a year or so ago left Clusterfolk bereft of a drummer, but through well-placed handclaps, shakers, mouth noises and a frame drum here and there, the percussion manages to fill in all the right spots. The end of “Circle the Wagons” opens into free-form psychedelia. Kartholl’s bass quickens, Eby soars off, Hoffman works his bow and Ellsworth keeps it all tied together. I didn’t want the jam to end, and live the band could easily stretch it out indefinitely if the mood were to strike.
Ellsworth is an inventive lyricist, to say the least. On songs such as “Never Kill What You Can’t Eat,” “Meth Lab Dog” and “Mongo Floyd” (with Susie Suraci on accordion), his interesting take on practical philosophy, tweakers and ill-fated excursions is always entertaining. “Never Kill” features Kartholl’s nimble mandolin playing, a treat found on the band’s recordings but rarely during live gigs, where he sticks to the bass.
Inis Mor” sent me to the Internet to find out that Inis Mor is the largest of the Aran islands in Galway Bay near Ireland. The Celtic lilt is spot-on. Joyce Fry’s light hammer dulcimer touch adds further authenticity to the tune.
“Meth Lab Dog” is simultaneously hilarious, sad and threatening. “Well he’s wild-eyed / Bones and skin / He looks just like his master / Lean, mean, scarred and singed / A meth lab dog disaster.” The songs hits like it should. Eby cranks up the distortion and Hoffman menaces with his fiddle.
Sarah Ellsworth takes over the lead vocals on “It’s Not Enough” and shines in the spotlight. Her voice is bell-clear and delivers the exasperation of the lyrics with certitude. Elements of her voice bring to mind Natalie Merchant’s finer moments.
“Odd Sounds at Midnight” is another instrumental ditty, with Jon Gillespie sitting in on the harpsichord.
The 16 tracks on Circle the Wagons reveal a band well into its stride. Heart on Sleeve is an exceptional record and a tough act to follow, but with Circle the Wagons Ellsworth and Clusterfolk confirm that their first release was no fluke. The songs are strong and the playing, as always, is outstanding.