[ROOTS-ROCK COCKTAIL] If opening tracks are meant to forecast an album's mood, then "Long Fall," the first cut off Redwood Son's two-disc debut effort, The Lion's Inside, signals clear skies ahead. The song totes enough whistle-while-you-work optimism to please even Bobby McFerrin. But as the album title suggests—and Redwood Son frontman Josh Malm's cracking voice confirms—dark clouds are waiting just around the bend. The ensuing 19 songs are a winding mixture of countrified folk and soft rockabilly that demonstrates both the grayness of this band's identity and some golden rays of very strong Americana.
In 2009, skies darkened when Portland drummer and founding Redwood Son member Kipp Crawford was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Like any good musician, Malm—who had previously performed under the name J*Malem—coped with the loss through songwriting, marrying wailing strings and somber pastoral twang with his weathered, gospel-tinged cries.
So, fittingly, Disc 1 of The Lion's Inside sounds of mourning. Malm is haunted by ghostly backup vocals (from a total of seven different sirens) throughout, bad memories he can't shake. Guest vocalist Jenna Ellefson's silky timbre pads the grit of standouts "Strong Enough" and "Waiting for You." But the four-piece falters when its sound swells, forcefully fusing disparate genres like funk and folk on tracks like âLittle Bed of Music.â
Disc 2 takes the freewheeling, forward-looking stance of a realist who has come to terms: "You can live your life around a candle," Malm sings. "But you're bound to get burned sometimes." Guitarist Chance Hayden savors some extra space here, firing off rounds of jukebox-friendly riffage on "Early Birds" and "We Must Change."
That extra musical wiggle room spawns richer rhythms and sharper hooks for Redwood Son, but Malm will need to tidy up his lyrics and vocal excesses for Redwood Son to truly shine.
SEE IT: Redwood Son plays the Aladdin Theater on Saturday, June 11. 8 pm. $13 advance, $18 day of show. All ages.