In the press release for Love And Logic, the fourth and latest album from Virginia’s Sons Of Bill, there’s a telling quote from producer Ken Coomer, who claims, “I’m only interested in making records that are still going to be relevant ten years from now, and this is one of them. It’s unmistakably the real thing.” It’s a bold statement from the ex-Wilco man, who also reckons that this album takes him back to the creative heights of his former band. They certainly have that literate depth and quality, drawing on a rich legacy of southern culture, name checking William Faulkner alongside Townes Van Zandt, Big Star’s Chris Bell and R.E.M. Adding their fraternity and a home-life that has helped forge a unique understanding of music, the results are something special indeed and although time will be the judge, the smart money’s with Ken’s assertion.
With the Sons Of Bill, it’s all in the name. The three brothers, James, Sam and Abe Wilson are the sons of William Wilson, professor emeritus of theology and literature at the University of Virginia and part-time picker in the Virginia piedmont, the plateau between the coastal plain to the east and the famous blue ridge mountains westward. It’s here that the boys grew up in a house without a record player, but not without music, as their father sang his songs of love and life, death and murder, ballads hymns and more. Although the brothers were quite able to discover rock ‘n’ roll, The Beatles and The Stones and so on for themselves, this unusual musical home life has certainly made its mark on their sound.
Before the band came together, the three siblings had left the family home for pastures new. The story goes that it was when James, the youngest of the three graduated from his California college, he decided to head for home. First, however, he made a detour to visit Sam, the eldest, who was already immersed in a musical life in Brooklyn, playing guitar in a rock band and freelancing as a jazz guitarist on the side. Sam is a highly accomplished musician, having studied classical guitar, but when the pair got together it was songs that they had learnt from their father, mixed in with a few of James’ own that they worked through.
Continuing homewards, he joined his other brother Abe, who was home from his studies, majoring in architecture in Maryland, playing the same mix of material in and around their hometown. Before long friends Seth Green and Todd Wellons had been recruited to add bass and drums respectively. As things got more serious, both Abe and Sam moved back home and the family band was born.
Love And Logic is the Sons Of Bill’s fourth album since making their debut in 2006 after winning a local Battle Of The Bands. The prize was studio time and they used it to good effect making A Cry From Freedom. It was their third album, Sirens, that proved the breakthrough, charting in America and setting the band onto an international stage, touring on both sides of The Atlantic. It’s perhaps significant that for Sirens, that whilst it was fan-funded through a Kickstarter campaign, they easily outstripped their target. It’s also of note that the project was itself kick-started when David Lowry of Cracker approached the band with a view to producing them, which he indeed did.
As mentioned at the start, it’s Ken Coomer at the controls here and the brothers bring an array of guitars and keyboards to the party. As suggested, Sam is the most versatile, with his pedal steel in particular making its presence felt, although Abe on keys, banjo and guitar isn’t far behind. Perhaps most unusually both Sam and bassist Seth also play vibes on the album. Whilst the songwriting is shared out between the brothers, it’s Abe who can claim the lions share, on Love And Logic at least, with his name against seven as either writer or co-writer, compared with James’ four and Sam’s three.
It’s Abe’s Big Unknown that starts things rolling, and despite the title it’s an easy roll too, with twin acoustic guitars, a touch of Dobro and baritone guitar and a melody that all suggests the Eagles. Nothing is quite so straightforward, however, as the song builds, the highway imagery gives way to lines like, “You’re still walking that narrow line, between seeing God and wasting your time.” The extended coda shifts into power pop before playing out like something from a Beatles record, suggesting a particular affinity with the Revolver album, which is no bad thing.
Even the title of the next track, Brand New Paradigm, suggests something out of the ordinary and musically and lyrically it doesn’t disappoint, stretching out and slowing the pace. You can perhaps see where the analogies to Pink Floyd have surfaced, especially in the rise to the chorus although that doesn’t do the song justice and the brother’s harmonies take this onto another level, with once more a Beatles-esque fullness. Without being specific, the song suggests quiet rebellion and the need for change in lines like, “I’m only hoping for a brand new state of mind.” They like their finishes too and again the song rises exponentially towards its climax. The vibes play their subtle part in the mix as well.
Road To Canaan sets off into more familiar singer songwriter acoustic territory and features the voice of Leah Blevins adding harmony. The mix is slightly odd, with the percussion adding a rhythmic murmur underneath the sweetness of the melody, only for things to turn darker as distortion enters the picture. Lyrically too, there’s anger in, “And woe to all you pretty well fed sons of bitches, in the darkness there’s a hunger that won’t be satisfied.”
Lost In The Cosmos (Song For Chris Bell) is a tribute to the troubled Big Star man, whose death in a car accident added his name to the dreaded 27 Club. In life he battled depression and never filled his potential, his only solo album being released posthumously. You get both a sense of the complex character and the effect of his music on Abe, whilst the music matches the title with washes of weeping pedal steel and again the brother’s innate harmonic strength is very much in evidence.
Bad Dancer puts their Southern roots to the fore with, “Once Southern boys they all loved R.E. Lee, once Southern Girls they all loved R.E.M., were they all in a confederacy against you, or were you just like them.” The song has a real drive to it, with the banjo adding an effervescent lick, and a familiar melody that for now at least remains elusive, whilst the finale follows form, lifting the track into another realm.
If the opening piano chord of Fishing Song brings us back down to earth, lyrically and musically it turns into a slow reverie and opens with, “With my head up in the clouds,” it suggest a need for escape, but in other ways is almost a companion piece to Brand New Paradigm. There’s a dreamy haze none the less that continues through Higher Than Mine, where, although seemingly caught in love’s gaze the protagonist is seemingly at the mercy of a free spirit, which rather complicates the story.
If Arms Of A Landslide is redolent of the tight angst of R.E.M. both melodically and in lines like, “If we could find another acronym to justify our minds, then the effect is nicely subverted with some decidedly comic, keyboards, synthetic string washes and more that set the song soaring. There is also a tinge of doubt, however, in lines like, “If just for once in your life the stars would align.” That feeling lingers into Light A Light, as again the keys, this time electric piano, set a more sombre tone, accentuated by heavy fuzz-toned slide and the mournful sweep of pedal steel, as love seems to be a lost cause.
As a final act, Hymsong fits its title with a valedictory state of grace, if there’s a melancholy in the opening lines, “All the years I lost to sadness, all the years I lost to rage,” there is also the hope of redemption in the knowledge that, “We will look for love and logic in the dying of the light.”
We, all of us, are trying to make sense of our world and our place in it, which perhaps isn’t that easy to do. Certainly love and logic are too things that frequently seem to be at odds, yet at least in the 40 odd minutes of this album, there seems room for them both. You can be smart and passionate at the same time as the Sons Of Bill ask us to use our heads and our hearts to follow where they will lead us and if this is where the next 10 years are heading then the signs are, we’re on the right path.
Review by: Simon Holland
UK & European Tour
Feb 05 Poppodium Grenswerk,Venlo, Netherlands
Feb 06 Roots on the Road ,Borger, Netherlands
Feb 07 Molotow Bar, Hamburg, Germany
Feb 08 Bang Bang Club, Berlin, Germany
Feb 09 Ampere, Munchen, Germany
Feb 10 Luxor, Koln, Germany
Feb 11 Qbus, Leiden, Netherlands
Feb 12 Metropool, Hengelo, Netherlands
Feb 14 The Bullingdon, Oxford, United Kingdom
Feb 15 Railway Inn, Winchester, United Kingdom
Feb 16 The Tunnels, Bristol, United Kingdom
Feb 17 Hare and Hounds, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Feb 18 Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, United Kingdom
Feb 19 Stereo, Glasgow, United Kingdom
Feb 20 The Cluny, Newcastle, United Kingdom
Feb 21 The Maze, Nottingham, United Kingdom
Feb 23 Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, London, United Kingdom
Feb 25 Kafe Antzokia, Bilbao, Spain
Feb 26 Loco Club, Valencia, Spain
Feb 27 Boite Live, Madrid, Spain
Feb 28 La Ley Seca, Zaragoza, Spain
Mar 01 RockSound, Barcelona, Spain
Out Now in US, released 26th January in the UK