We often talk of our happiest moments as feeling like all the pieces coming together. The first time you press play on Pharis and Jason Romero’s third album, A Wanderer I’ll Stay, the saying makes perfect sense; it’s hard to believe that these voices were ever destined to be anywhere else than harmonising. Two sides of the same coin, the combination is akin to two finely tuned Stradivari, or closer to home perhaps, two classic Martin guitars in counterpoint rhythm. It’s a beautiful thing, and they’ve applied it to a range of songs, both traditional and new, that spans the contemporary end of bluegrass, Country and Blues.
It starts in stunning fashion with the title track, Pharis’s vocal sharing similarities with the echo of loss often found in Gillian Welch’s best performances. On the banjo led New Lonesome Blues, which wears The Milk Carton Kids on its sleeve, three simple verses are all that’s needed to articulate the desperation of oncoming solitude. Both are original compositions, two of eight, but there’s plenty from the vaults too.
Jess Milton’s Goodbye Old Paint arrives courtesy of Alan Lomax who recorded it in 1942 and final track The Dying Soldier is a reworking of Buell Kazee’s Civil War ballad from the 1920s. Both make full use of Jason’s home and hand-made banjos. Elsewhere, Billy Mayhew’s It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie uses pedal steel to great effect on a melody most will know from Slim Whitman’s version.
It’s the new compositions that stay with you, though. Cleverly arranged to ensure that modern mores are catered for, they skillfully blend the ethos of their stylistic origins with a modern production and sound that meets the exacting criteria of long-time and new listeners of the genre. Ballad Of Old Bill’s tale of a lonely wanderer willing to leave this world out in the hills strikes upon the album’s general theme of loners and their wish to either stay that way, or end such singular life in the arms of a loved one. Capturing that theme in the title alone, Lonesome And I’m Going Back Home features measured finger-picking from Jason and an end-of-the-night, bar is closed feel. Two instrumentals feature a gourd banjo; Backstep Indie is inspired by the Romero’s daughter, and Old September employs hefty reverb on a great melody that becomes a haunted journey through the backwoods.
There’s a lot to savour on A Wanderer.., not least a free and easy feel to the delivery, some deeply embedded hooks that emerge the more you listen and cultured playing. Allied to some good songs and those incredible voices, it’s a delicious little nugget of an album.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Out Now via Lula Records