It’s an elusive character, explains Railroad Earth mandolinst John Skehan. He has been talking about the band’s new album and that live moment when the beauty of music is revealed; that moment when everything clicks in a song, the good, the bad, the bum notes, and all. It is that place that allows things in a song to free up, when everyone in the band is on the same wavelength and true musical bliss is found. It is at that moment when a little spark ignites. Skehan says it happens in that little place in between knowing the song just enough, but not quite enough. On their latest album, Last of the Outlaws, Railroad Earth found that elusive character over and over, crafting one of the strongest studio albums of their career. It is an album that finds the band showcasing their strengths, the always glorious songwriting of singer/ guitarist Todd Shaeffer and the live powers and improvisational chops of bassist Andrew Altman, fiddler Tim Carbone, multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling, drummer Carey Harmon, and Skehan. Railroad Earth are quite simply the closest current thing we have to The Band today with the way they tap into the soul of Americana music and their ability to subtly infuse all that they do with a bluegrass inspired, mountain born, folksy-twang, and rocking heart all at once. And Last of the Outlaws is the perfect representation of that musically inclusive, Americana soul.
The band entered the studio in October of 2012 during some down time from the road.Â They found a studio near their western New Jersey home that suited their needs.Â That combined with the knowledge that they were going to be releasing the album on their own label helped ease some of the pressure of working under a deadline and allowed the band the freedom to find a â€œspace where we could all play at the same time and record everything closer to the live environment.â€Â They imposed a rough end date of January (which is when they would be getting back out on the road) and spent the fall months of 2012 holed up in the studio working on Last of the Outlaws.
Â Whereas on their previous self-titled album in which they begin with an extensive pre-production process, this time around Skeehan says they â€œstarted out just bouncing ideas around, just going in and playing, trying things out and recording them.â€ This approach allowed songs to grow organically and has given the album an extremely live feel.Â Skehan said that throughout the process songs morphed and changed many times as the band worked out the original riffs and melodies of each tune as they combined new ideas with old and created brand new tunes every time they were in the studio.Â In particular he mentions the brooding, piano driven, title track, â€œLast of the Outlaws,â€ as a song that evolved drastically over their time in the studio.Â He said it became something â€œvery, very different from the original fills and riffs they were playing around on.â€Â After jamming on some of the ideas and musical themes they had originally worked up for the song, they set it aside for few days until singer and guitarist Shaeffer came into the studio with a brand new song he had worked up with the ideas they had been fooling around with. This new song while rooted in the basic ideas they had been toying with, was something completely different and now had the familiar slow, jazzy feel that would become â€œLast of the Outlaws.
Skehan says that it was the ability to just play, and get into each song that truly shaped the album and gave it its personality.Â â€œWe would spend a couple of hours each day experimenting, just playing,â€Â he says, Â Â â€œWe had a couple of free-wheeling weeks like that where we did not know where exactly what was going to be on the record and it was pretty liberating.Â We were just playing and not thinking is this the take? Is this the song? What will this become next week? Instead it was just this jam that we were working through.â€Â
This free-wheeling nature led to the band relaxing and stretching their exploratory legs out and allowing each song to try on many musical guises before finally taking shape.Â The throbbing, joyous beat of â€œMonkeyâ€ was original recorded with the entire band crowded around a single microphone in an old-time jug-band style.Â The rambling stripped down approach never fully took hold.Â They redid it with the regular full-band line-up and an entirely different character of the song emerged.Â Â
“Grandfather Mountain” was what Skehan called â€œvery different for them as a slow ballad. Originally the band did not intend for the track to have the lengthy, improvised section on the end of the song, but Skehan remembers that Shaeffer came into the studio with the arrangement of the song fully finished and the band just let [themselves] run with the end, and then sat back and said well, it’s kind of long, but realized [they] were digging into it the same way [they] would live and thought â€˜this has some moments happening here, let’s just keep them . For Skehan it was just a reflection of â€œwhat the band was up to that particular day, and they were just enjoying them moment and seeing where it would go. The lengthy, improvised section also gave the band the courage to pursue another idea they had been toying around with.
The highlight of the album is the twenty-one minute multi-part suite, â€œAll thatâ€™s Dead May Live Again/ Face with a Hole.â€Â The seven parts of this majestical, long-form, musical suite is the most ambitious, inspiring piece of musicÂ Railroad Earth has ever put down in the studio.Â â€œThere was a notion of saying letâ€™s see if we can work on a long, openly composed piece, but that still contains some elements of improvisation that connect all these different ideas and see how they can all hang together and work,â€ says Skehan.Â
There was some skepticism among the band that something that complex may not work in the realm of the rest of the album, but after the success of the lengthy section in â€œGrandfather Mountain,â€ the band realized, â€œthe longer piece was more likely going to work and fit in with everything.Â It did have some of those more experimental elements and orchestral elements, but there is also some rock â€˜nâ€™ roll happening as you get to the end of â€˜Face with a Hole.â€™â€Â The piece does more than simply work; it helps define the entire character of the album.Â In its twenty-one minutes it provides a deep introduction into who Railroad Earth is a band.Â From the simple penny-whistle intro through the piano-led conclusion of â€œAll thatâ€™s Dead May Liveâ€ that gives way to the raging intensity of â€œFace with a Hole,â€ before settling back down with the lush, sparse outro â€œIn Paradisum,â€ all facets of the band are revealed, the lyrical dexterity of Shaeffer, the multi-instrumental prowess of Goessling, the tight rhythm section of drummer Harmon and bassist Altman, the dashing flourishes of Carboneâ€™s fiddle, and the adventurous hand of John Skehan on the mandolin and piano.Â
The multi-part opus is also one of the only times in recording history that the benefit of CD will be ever touted over vinyl.Â With the space limitations on vinyl, one can only imagine the twenty-minute suite being segregated to one side of the album, or even worse being neutered and split into two halves.Â But by being able to keep it as one whole piece, and better yet, by being able to perfectly place it in the middle of the album, the piece serves to hold the whole album together.Â It gives the album an almost live show feel which is perfect.Â Â [Authorâ€™s note:Â This will be the last time I praise the benefits of CDs over vinyl. Ever.]
The process of recording live as a group was one that appealed to Skehan, and one that he felt brought out the best in the band.Â â€œI have always enjoyed what the ensemble does together when recording,â€ he says, â€œTo me that is always the most interesting when you can go home and listen to the rough mixes of things, to hear us working out new stuff and capturing it in the moment that is sometimes when we get our best results.â€Â
There was no better example of this then while recording the title track. After figuring out the arrangement the band went in and blasted through a couple of takes. On their way back into the control room engineer Dean Rickard commented to the band, “That’s an impressive piece of music.” Skehan and the rest of the band quickly recognized Rickard was right. “We all realized that we shouldn’t try again as we will try too hard and didn’t think we needed to add any overdubs. We decided to just leave it along, and with the exception of some bass clarinet added by Goessling that is the take that appears on the album.”
Last of the Outlaws is a high-water mark for Railroad Earth, an album that exemplifies what it is that makes the band up musically, and a strong statement where they are going from here. It was an album that was created where the band is most comfortable, which is together, instruments in hand, just playing live with each other.
It is this dynamic that truly gives them their power and it is what made this such a special album for Skehan to be a part of. “To me my favorite part of the process is while we are in it, while we are doing it. Hearing the songs coming out of Todd and hearing not quite finished lyrics and thinking, ‘Wow, where is he going with this.’ And then when I hear it finished the next day it is always ‘Wow, I hear where he is it.’ It is the most exciting when you are doing it. It is what is then. I don’t worry about thinking about what I could change.”