By Brian M. Howle
Music is one of those things that, no matter how magnificently written, arranged, performed and produced, will always be subject to abject interpretation. Which is why those who can master the fine art of establishing their chosen genre into the much-sought-after world of “crossover” essentially have achieved the Holy Grail of success.
So, it’s fair to say that Sol Driven Train has that puppy safely tucked away in their formidable cache of accomplishments.
The band’s sonic schizophrenia absorbs songwriting influences like Jon Prine and Paul Simon, and afro-caribbean rhythmic explorations, into honest songs of life, love, loss, and long johns. The 5-piece band, based in Charleston, S.C., features rotating lead vocalists, and multi-instrumental talent spread across horns, strings, and percussion. The band members share a musical history dating back to childhood, and their music and live shows are filled with a spirit of positivity and joy, even while traversing subjects of suffering and death.
Sol Driven Train is a band in motion. Perpetually piling on and off the bus, the momentum of their hard work and heart-felt music propels the group in front of growing crowds across the country. At shows, the band members bounce to the pulse of the music along with the crowd. Stylistically the band seamlessly mixes Allmanesque Southern rock, languid world-beat, swampy funk and downright catchy melodies as they swap lead singers and instruments. And the horns … ah, the horns will call to you.
Since the fall of 2005, “the train” has been touring full-time, averaging 150 shows per year at festivals, theaters, and bars. In the spring of 2010, they celebrated their 1,000th live show and ten years together as a band. In those ten winding years they have shared stages and bills with a diverse array of artists including Micheal Franti, Richie Havens, Keller Williams, Arlo Guthrie, and Blues Traveler. Despite the pace, the band takes time on the road to enjoy outdoor activities such as whitewater rafting, surfing, rock climbing, and cloud gazing. The tour schedule has begun to resemble the nomadic wanderings of a raft guide, ski bum, and itinerant surfer racing between the mountains and the beach. Blatant sponsor plug: Sol Driven Train enjoys Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka as a tour sponsor and over ice with a splash of water and a lemon wedge. (If you haven’t tried Firefly, well, this local lowcountry libation leaves lackluster life loquaciously behind.)
A Review: Watermelon
The first track on this 5-track EP is the title track (As Todd Rundgren pointed out, in the tradition of Motown), “Watermelon.” Beginning with a nice, easy groove nestled in a subtle funkiness – that gets you doing that involuntary little head-bob thing – it lets you know before you hear verse one, this is a song you’re gonna like. The austere, compact spectrum of instrumentation perfectly complements the very tasty vocals, as the tune begins a sojourn that culminates with a rap-scented changeup to close it out.
Track 2 is the impishly playful “Vampire.” I really like songs such as this one, beginning with a samba-soaked bass line that has a hint of mariachi and old-world overtones of accordion tossed in for good measure. It’s all Sol Driven Train, but it does remind me – albeit 20 years removed – of Chapel Hill’s fabled Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “Hell,” only much better and without the annoying clutter of overproduction.
Track 3 explodes out of your speakers with a no-bones-about-it, hard-core, old-skool, lead-snare drum steam-enginetrain cadence, and wrapped up in “if that ain’t country, I’ll kiss your grits” pickin’ … and appropriately enough, it’s entitled “Romp.” Music is all too often so deep and ethereal and depressing; this would be a textbook example of “antonym” to that affect.
Next to last on this neat little EP, “Consume” examines the fringe of paranoia in a tune that reminds one of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention and The Tubes in their creative heydays. The neat trick to a well-written jam tune is losing the structure in the jam part; making it sound like it’s all thrown together on the fly. But it’s got some tasty fret burners laced in all the nifty syncopation. As with all the tracks on this CD, it’s just really well arranged and produced. The recurring thought while listening to this track (and, really, all of them) is, “These guys are from my state? Seriously? Chucktown and everything? Wow.”
And of course, to throw you completely off kilter, the final track “For Old Time’s Sake” immediately conjures up traditional churchy blues and hymnal charts. Great simplicity wrapped in rich vocal harmonies that just sound so much bigger than they are, with a mixture of N’awlins tribute and Southern Baptist blues in a ballet of horns and piano riffs. A nice, slow, reflective ending to a really eclectic musical ride, perhaps it helps to be a native of the lowcountry, or the Palmetto State, or the Old South.
Or maybe it’s just great music. Yeah, that’s probably it.
And after all … it would explain all these black seeds and green rinds laying around my stereo in a pool of sticky, sweet musical refreshment.
There are a bunch of reasons it would make a great Christmas gift, too, kids. It’s good, it’s affordable, and it’s available. Wraps easily, mails perfectly. Brings smiles to the face and soothes the soul.
Get a nice, juicy slice of your own at http://www.soldriventrain.com .