Banshee doesn’t do much to separate itself from the band’s previous material.
It’s funny how most people define country and folk music these days. They seem to revel in the typically overproduced sugar, the silly dramatic poses on album covers and the songs so stuffed with clichés that they give the impression that all original thought has already been thought up. Look, fun is fun, and sugar is sweet, but it seems that the music labeled as Americana or county or folk is mostly made up of imposters in boots and cowboy hats—not a trio of fellas (most of the time) from Seattle, Washington who play rock ‘n’ roll and Americana as it should be played. The Cave Singers’ music is stripped down, it’s genuine and it’s just plain old good.
2016 marks the release of The Cave Singers’ fifth album, Banshee, and their first free from record label scrutiny. Reliable as ever, Peter Quirk and company have returned with 10 tracks that are mostly like everything that’s come before them. Lots of finger-plucked guitar, handclaps, harmonica, stompin’ bass drum beats and a-typical vocal hooks from Quirk’s a-typical, but somehow perfectly fitting, vocal stylings. It’s not difficult to enjoy Banshee. The band makes it easy, actually. But, as an entry to a consistently expanding body of work, Banshee doesn’t do much to separate itself from the band’s previous material. That’s not a bad thing—the record hits all the right notes—but after almost a decade of music the hope that the masses take notice may have to hold over until next time around.
The opening track, “That’s Why,” is more or less The Cave Singers’ version of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” Same beat, same style of play, different perspective. It’s not the best track on Banshee, but it’s worth discussing because it’s vaguely out of place, but by equal measure a fine Cave Singers tune. An interesting piece, sure, but not a style that should be sustained. And thankfully, “Lost in the Tide” follows it up with something a bit more familiar. It’s classic Cave Singers with its beautiful and subtle finger-picked guitar work underneath a bittersweet melody from the harmonica. With the drum beat a rolling tide on the toms and the backing vocals adding an almost angelic chorus to the mix, it’ll give a Cave Singers fan reason to pick Banshee up no questions asked.
“Southern Bell” is more or less an up-tempo continuation of “Lost in the Tide.” It has all of the same features, replaces the harmonica with handclaps and gets caught right between the ears with its simplicity and joyful listenability. It’s a good tune, there’s no doubting that. It won’t be the Cave Singers song you have folks listen to as an introduction. It’s not one of their best, but it’s good. Plain and simple.
The Cave Singers never making a record without dropping a true gem onto it. “Strip Mine” is that flawless rock. It’s damn near soulful with its rhythm and melody. It draws from a long history of soul music without mimicking anything at all, and because The Cave Singers have a style all their own, this addition is pure inspiration on their part. It’s doubtful this perspective could have been maintained for an entire album, but this is a special tune with a sense of style that could make those folks discussed earlier a reason to shut up and listen. It’s a fantastic little number worth Banshee’s purchase on its own—not just for fans of the band, but for fans of music in general.
Banshee settles back into The Cave Singers’ tried and true stylings with “Cool Criminal,” and with the exception of “The Swimmer” (only because it’s not all that great) stays there until the album plays itself out. “Fade Away” and “Christmas Night” stand out nicely, but the hope for more of “Strip Mine” outweighs the quality of the backend of the album. Which is a bit of a shame because “Fade Away” is a beautiful acoustic folk tune that allows Quirk’s voice and skillful guitar work shine—and he doesn’t disappoint.
The definitions of country and folk music are fairly narrow these days, it’s true. But The Cave Singers have been offering an alternative to alt-country radio candy for nearly a decade, and Banshee is proof. While it won’t set the world ablaze, it is certainly a worthy addition to The Cave Singers’ body of work. It’s doubtful that Banshee will make its way to people’s ears without a little assistance from the folks who find the band worth sharing, but this record, despite being generally more of the same, is a fine place to start for anyone looking for a break from the common definition that stymies country and folk music in cliché and fashion.