Album Review: Pharis & Jason Romero, 'Sweet Old Religion'

by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley

There’s something so deliciously pure about what happens when Pharis and Jason Romero make music together. From the first notes of “Sweet Old Religion,” the opening tune and title track of their latest album, it’s hard to turn your ears away. Their guitar interplay on the track sets a walking two-chord progression against a creek-flowing lead line, then in come their perfectly matched vocals.

Indeed, both have lead voices, and both had separate careers—Pharis with the beloved band Outlaw Social—before they found their way to one another during a jam in 2007.  They knocked around in various collaborations for a couple of years and released their first album as Pharis & Jason Romero in 2011.

Since then, from their home in Horsefly, British Columbia, the husband-and-wife duo has quietly released a handful of the best folk albums of the past decade, repeatedly earning recognition from Canada’s Juno Awards even as they’ve remained somewhat under the radar Stateside.

Sweet Old Religion is their fourth release and will hopefully cement their status for American audiences, as it is their first made entirely of original songs. Operating out of their J. Romero luthier business, the pair has established their proficiency on the instruments they build; and now we can be sure their songwriting is just as good.

Thematically, this album is about hope and love—two of the world’s most persistent ideas that yet occasionally feel so hard to grasp. In one of the album’s high points, “Stitch in Time,” for example, they sing, “I see by the light of the evening sky, stars trying to shine.”

Light comes up again, as another thread throughout the album—most notably on “You Are a Shining Light.” Pharis notes they wrote the song for Bellingham, Washington-based singer-songwriter Lucas Hicks, a good friend of the Romeros who died of cancer before he could hear this tribute. (“When the moment gets dark and heavy, you know you are not alone. You are a shining light.”)

Backed occasionally by Patrick Metzger on bass (his bowing on “Leave the Garden Gate Open” is of particular note), John Reischman on mandolin, producer Marc Jenkins on pedal steel, and Josh Rabie on fiddle (the latter two are best in the background on the danceably optimistic “Come On Love”), the duo nonetheless could charm with no additional accompaniment. Their collaboration is fueled by an intangible magic, the rare quality that makes a critic want to leave it at, “Just turn this album on; you’ll love it.”

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Sweet Old Religion will be released on May 18th, but is available for pre-order now at iTunes and Amazon.com.

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