Trampled By Turtles arrive at their seventh studio album, Wild Animals, on the back of mainstream recognition. Over the course of a decade the Duluth, Minnesota natives have made steady progress. Their fourth album Duluth named after their hometown was the first to chart, albeit only on the US Bluegrass 100, where it made number 8, a feat eclipsed by the follow up Palomino, Which made it all the way to number 1. Their last album, Stars And Satellites, however, made the crossover leap, debuting at number 32 on the Billboard 200 Chart and the Turtles first national television appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman duly followed. Wild Animals looks set to continue the upward curve, as their boldest statement yet.
It’s that first chart landmark for Duluth that offers a major clue as to the band’s musical history. They are capable of playing a particularly fiery brand of American folk and bluegrass, pumped up with high energy banjo riffs and breakneck tempos. While there are a couple of tracks that fit that model, much of Wild Animals is markedly different. In part it’s down to the Turtles employing a new production partnership for these recording sessions, having been entirely self-sufficient for the past few releases. This time Alan Sparhawk of the band Low is joined by engineer B.J. Burton and the Turtles go as far as calling them courageous in their use of sound.
Sparhawk reciprocates claiming, that the band are capable of creating a unique sound from familiar instruments and he has a point. He comments, “Everyone has a part in the arrangement that leans on and enhances the others, always serving the song. The message is not about individuals – it’s about what can be done when people get together, apply their heart and soul, and make a little room for each other. Music has always had that potential, but it’s rare when it actually happens.”
But there’s another factor in play here, as lead singer and principal songwriter Dave Simonett now calls Minnesota home. He’s traded in a life on the edge of natural wilderness for the big city. Simonett’s relationship with the natural world found him seeking almost daily periods of solitude, something that could be achieved with a 20 minute drive from his previous home. He described the quite contemplative commune with nature as being his church. The move to the city has, therefore, found Dave loosing his religion and that has started to find a way into in his songwriting.
The band’s current biography quotes him saying, “I’ve always been a little obsessed with our struggle to stay connected to our simple animal side, the part of our nature that lived off the earth, hunted live game, worshipped trees and mountains. I believe a lot of sadness is caused by feeling disconnected with the rest of nature. A lot of what is instinctual for us is beaten down and frowned upon in modern society. It has to be confusing for the subconscious.”
All in all it adds up to a creative maelstrom and perhaps a perfect storm pushing both the writing and the sonic structure of the tracks. One of the Turtles strengths is that four of them sing and they make the most of their gift for harmony, with little extra help Alan Sparhawk. At times the layering of voices is absolutely epic and the soundstage is huge, drenched in intense washes of instruments. It takes a little while of listening, with a lingering sense that there’s something unusual going on for the realisation that there are no drums to finally take hold, such is the intensity of the playing.
The title tack opens up in dramatic style with a huge soundscape, with the layered voices tightly woven in harmony. If The Beach Boys had not been blessed with what seemed like perpetual summer sunshine and surf and had relocated to become The Great Lakes Boys perhaps this would have been the result, although Fleet Foxes make a more recent comparison, as does Israel Nash Gripka’s Rain Plans. Like the latter, Wild Animals seems to draw its breath from the vast and remote American wilderness, as Dave Simonett tries to re-establish his connection to nature.
The track gains its momentum through strummed acoustic guitar with mandolin and banjo providing counterpoint around the melody. Fiddle and cello dive and swoop through the soundstage as Dave’s opening lines suggest, “There’s another world it’s made for us, trapped in bodies they are made to rust.” As the song progresses, the brooding intensity builds and a wall of heavily looped feedback threatens to take over only to fall away and let the voices back to the fore in the end.
Hollow starts with what seems like a jaunty tune only to deliver the lines, “Little did we know that the world was dying, that the birds outside, they never sang for us.” The combination of folkish feel and apocalyptic message is a clever one. Once again all of the instrumentation is recognisable and skilfully interlaced, but with the banjo in particular bubbling away, there’s a real sense of the tone and timbre being pushed. The same is true of Repetition, with the fiddle and mandolin uniting to give the track a striking shimmer.
It’s there again in Are You Behind The Shining Star?, with the guitar banjo and mandolin combining to give a Byrds like jangle, while the fiddle alternates between a swelling drone and cutting slash and finally like a searing lead guitar lick. There’s just a hint of tambourine, which is probably the only actual percussion used. The Byrdsian feel is echoed in Silver Light although this time moving into the loping, country stride of Sweethearts Of The Rodeo and the San Fran sparkle of Younger Than Yesterday.
All of the above makes the helter-skelter Come Back Home a real surprise, but then it’s the high energy bluegrass that the band have built their reputation on. Still it’s a veritable whirlwind of picking and plucking strumming and bowing. It’s followed by Ghosts, which as the title suggests is a return to the slower tempo and a dramatic, otherworldly soundscape and the troubling suggestion that, “There’s blood on the hillside.” The gorgeous harmonies are balanced by the deep register of cello, which also continues into Lucy, giving an equally ominous tone to the start of the song. An electric bass pulses like a heartbeat and there’s a mournful undertone to the tune, that swells up towards a big finish.
The second of the full-tilt bluegrass numbers, Western World, with some astonishing playing as Dave sings, “The sun was high and good for travel, I don’t mind when things unravel in the Western world.” They stop just short of fraying here, but the blur of fingers around the banjo is seat-of-the-pants stuff.
There’s almost a country gospel feel to Nobody Knows and once again Simonett’s concerns with dislocation surface as he sings, “Nobody knows me, ‘cause I am nothing, just a ghost of silence I have no home.” It’s as if he’s incomplete as he adds, “Made up of starlight, heartache and music.” Again the sentiments find echoes in the plaintive closer, which has an uneasy nostalgia for, “Dirty little basements and electric guitars, the sound of the river and the pines and the stars.”
As much as it speaks of Simonett’s disconnection for the wilderness that he took for granted, it also tells of a group of musicians learning their chops and paying their dues, yet with a sense of the biggest pictures to inspire them. So, lungs filled with fresh air to power their voices, eyes rising to the widest horizons and ultimately the heavens above, Wild Animals captures all of that and in the same instant sets it free.
Review by: Simon Holland
Wild Animals (Offical Video)
Are You Behind the Shining Star?
European & UK Dates
07 – Haldern, DE, Haldern Pop Festival (Sold Out)
08 – Rothenburg ob der Tauber, DE, Taubertal Open Air
09 – Eschwege, DE, Open Flair Festival (Sold Out)
10 – Munich, DE, Kranhalle
11 – Berlin, DE, Bang Bang Club
12 – Hamburg, DE, Prinzenbar
13 – Köln, DE, Luxor
14 – The Hague, NL Crossing Border Festival
15 – Paris, FR, La Maroquinerie
16 – Bristol, UK, Thekla
17 – Manchester, UK, Gorilla
18 – Glasgow, UK, The Art School
19 – Birmingham, UK, The Institute
20 – London, UK, Scala
22 – Amsterdam, NL, Tolhuistuin Zaal Paradiso
Full dates and details: http://trampledbyturtles.com
Released 14 July 2014
Order via: Amazon