Album Review: Nell & Jim Band, 'Western Sun'

by Henry Carrigan (@henry.carrigan), Folk Alley

Folk Alley Album Review Nell and Jim Band Western Sun

The achingly gorgeous ballad “By Stars and Sunrise” - written by Chris Wadsworth, Nell Robinson, and Jim Nunally - kicks off the Nell & Jim Band’s third album, opening sparsely with the somber intertwining of piano and guitar chords, providing the blanket on which Nell Robinson’s flute magically floats. The rhythmic patterns of the song - captured fluidly in Nunally’s crystalline lead runs in the instrumental bridge - evokes the movement of the narrator’s movement from east to west in search of riches and a new life and his return from west to east as a “free and rich man.” The song captures the travails and triumphs, the promises and hopes of emigration. “By Stars and Sunrise” gently guides us into the rest of an album that migrates not only across geographic and social landscapes but also across various musical landscapes.

Western Sun, as Nunally says, is “a reflection of the root influences of folk-Americana music. Here are stories about early immigrants and their ancestors from the wave of Europeans in the early 19th century. And then on to settlers moving west, Gold Rush hopefuls and Dust Bowl migrants. And in more modern history, fire victims and the anguish of addiction. And for a bit of levity, you can dance to some imported East European polkas.”

A shimmering and haunting accordion opens “The Fire,” mimicking the funerary strains of a church organ. The plaintive song tells the story of a devastating prairie fire and the homesteader who returns to find his wife and baby missing. It’s harrowing tale of loss and the madness that descends on the homesteader who realizes he’s lost everything. The skittering country shuffler, “In My Beautiful Dream,” rides along Rob Reich’s romping New Orleans accordion runs. The urgent rhythms and scampering vocals duet between Robinson and Nunally belies the sad twist at the song’s end. “Sequoia Gold” is at once a paean to the gigantic sequoia trees “standing on the banks of Caspar Creek” and a narrative of the wealth that arises out of the burgeoning lumber business grows in the aftermath of the Gold Rush. The call and response of the Nunally’s banjo and Robinson’s flute float under and around the propulsive march of the story. The album closes with the jazzy gospel-inflected tune “Woe is Me” that gleefully nods and winks at the usual plea to the Lord to be set free from troubles with an ironic twist.

Western Sun showcases Robinson and Nunally’s, as well as Chris Wadsworth’s, innovative songwriting and their canny ability to paint a stunningly memorable portrait through their storytelling. The Nell & Jim’s band romp across vast musical terrains also reveals their inventive stylings, shining a warm light on traditional music.

Western Sun is out now and available HERE.

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