AVENUE

album review – Stray Local’s “Passenger”

Established folk duo changes gears with new sound and one of the year’s best albums.

By Brian Tucker

When it comes to Stray Local, if past continues to be prologue, you can never know what to expect.

Since 2014 each of their releases has been different in some form, genre, or recording style. Artistic restlessness has led them to “Passenger,” an EP of material far from anything they’ve produced over five years and a handful of albums. The band’s core is Hannah Lomas and Jamie Rowen, and pairing with producer Lee Hester (Beta Radio), they’ve made an album that leaps from previous efforts and essentially positions them as a different entity.

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Stray Local is widely known for playing old time, folk, and Americana music. Fans may be thrown, and that’s pretty much guaranteed with “Passenger,” but its well worth it. The sound they and Hester have created begs for more material and serves as evidence they take evolving seriously. “Passenger” will surprise old fans and at the same time engage others.

Lomas and Rowen met at college with Rowen moving to Wilmington and a band ensued. Membership fluctuated and their first album “The Sun Still Shines” (2014) was a baker’s dozen of material ranging from blues and country to sassy rockers. It wasn’t as if Rowen of Lomas were struggling to find a voice, their talents were apparent on the album, it was just flowing with too many ideas. They delivered something great with 2015’s “Lonesome Road,” an album more coherent, energized, and tonally succinct.

The songs were recorded in a day-long marathon at their house. Not any band could take that on, and the results highlighted players both focused and sounding fantastic. Oscillating in energy, it made for an album’s worth of solid material, from the manic “Cluck ‘Ol Hen” to murder ballad “Omie Wise” or its carefree counterpart “Willow Garden.” They followed with 2016’s “Live at Ted’s” (a venue perfect for this band) which collected new and old material.

But with “Passenger” it’s a whole new ball game.

Songs are lush, a mix of old and new sounds in which well-traveled instruments are doing new things, crafting new tapestries. In part, it’s like a subdued R&B album born from old time instruments. On the title track and “Escape” percussion is subtle and comes in lightly to create atmosphere. Guitar creeps on these two songs (soft hints of Pink Floyd chime in too), and on the latter the banjo playing is more of a delicious sound effect than what the instrument is well known for.

They haven’t forgotten where they came from. ‘Watch it Grow” is a tempered, intimate number about love blossoming. “Black Eyed Daisy” is more playful, electric, and kind of echoes Sophie B. Hawkins from the early 90s had she explored Americana instead of R&B (and Dylan). Lomas sounds at her best here, finding a new voice and new colors.

The song “Passenger” is like a slow jam, but classy, boosted with string arrangements. They’ve taken traditional instrumentation and transformed it into something familiar, modern, and merging the feel of genres into some songs – dance, electronic, and atmospheric styles, while never actually being them. Closing number “You Won’t Believe Me” takes this to bigger heights – big drums, soaring (and doubled) vocals, and a large persona. It’s theatrical and it’s unleashed, a song that feels like another incarnation of Stray Local to come.

 

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