Within a week of meeting for the first time, Emily Barker, Amber Rubarth and Amy Speace had not only written their first song together but also recorded it, live to tape, in one of Nashville’s most highly regarded analogue studios. The trio were inspired enough by the result that they went on to form a trio, Applewood Road (also the title of that first song) and, early in 2015, reconvened to write, rehearse and record twelve more songs for their first album, also called Applewood Road.
The recording sessions took place at the Welcome To 1979 analogue studios in Nashville, where the songs were performed live around a single microphone and recorded to two-track tape. The production process remained in the analogue domain with the mastering being carried out on the vintage equipment at Gearbox Records in London. The result is an Americana record which manages to balance ‘old school’ recording techniques with a distinctly contemporary sheen that will undoubtedly appeal to gearheads and music buffs alike.
The album kicks off with its title track ‘Applewood Road’; the song that provided the initial impetus for the project and it’s easy to understand why Emily, Amber and Amy were so enthused by it – it’s definitely a highlight of the record. The trio’s close harmony singing floats serenely over a huge sounding double bass in a minimalist arrangement which suits the gently rolling song to perfection.
‘To The Stars’ fades in over acoustic fingerstyle guitar, its lyric of dreaming for better times as atmospheric as its arrangement. The harmonies on the refrains are sweet while the occasional electric guitar flourishes and rich reverb help create an atmosphere reminiscent of the Cowboy Junkies The Trinity Session album (if you knew how much I love that album, you’ll realise that comparison is actually major praise for Applewood Road!)
Opening with a false start – one of the occupational hazards of live recordings! – ‘Old Time Country Song’ quickly gathers its wits as fiddle and syncopated acoustic guitar join the fingerstyle banjo to lead the song to its a capella coda, in which Emily, Amber and Amy again demonstrate their impressive close harmonies.
Dropping the tempo a little, ‘Home Fires’ is an introspective lovesick ballad, its sparse arrangement and harmonies inflected with a country blues tinge providing a quieter interlude before the tougher, rockabilly ‘Honey Won’t You’ adjusts its drainpipe pants, tightens the laces on its blue suede shoes and jives wantonly around the room. Making good use of the tremelo arm on the electric guitar over a quickfire snare drum and handclap shuffle, it sounds like it should be blaring out of a neon-lit jukebox in a backroad diner on a Saturday night. A real highlight of the record.
‘Give Me Love’ introduces an almost gospel feel with some lush harmonies ringing out over a slow, drawn-out chord sequence played on (I think) a harmonium, with some discreet interjections from a fingerstyle banjo. The ‘light and shade’ sequencing of this section of the album pays dividends as ‘Sad Little Tune’, belying its title, picks up the tempo for an almost jugband stomp with neatly layered vocals and a wailing harmonica over an insistent banjo and a solid 4/4 percussion backbeat.
Complete with whistling intro and outro, ‘Lovin’ Eyes’ is a good-natured slice of bluegrass, brimming with suitably rattly acoustic guitar and some discreetly high speed nylon-string guitar behind its doowop harmonies; if the accompanying video is anything to go by, a good time was definitely had by all in its making!
The wistful ‘Josephine’ slows things down a little; it’s a pretty song with some keening fiddle over its swaying acoustic guitar rhythm which allows plenty of space for the bittersweet harmony vocals. The reflective mood continues into ‘I’m Not Afraid Anymore’, a slow song of heartbreak and quiet defiance built on a foundation of block chords on the piano with some well-placed bottleneck guitar laced around the emotive singing of the trio.
‘Bring The Car Round’ takes to the road in a song about moving on, underpinned by a solid double bass and the click of percussion against a brushed snare, its understated arrangement encapsulating the feeling of transience and rootlessness which is so often at the heart of Americana.
The penultimate ‘Row Boat’ features some nicely syncopated harmonies over its walking bass, hand percussion and ghostly acoustic guitar. Its quietly optimistic lyric paves the way for the closing ‘My Love Grows’, a simple song of devotion made all the sweeter by its bare arrangement of just an acoustic guitar backing the exquisite harmonies of Emily, Amber and Amy; it makes the perfect ending to the record.
Applewood Road (the trio) has produced an album (Applewood Road) which manages to cover a comprehensive selection of the benchmarks of the Americana genre, from country to bluegrass, rockabilly to country blues and a number of points in between. It does so with panache and and an easy confidence, making good use of the best aspects of analogue technology. The result is a polished yet rootsy record which places quality before quantity and will undoubtedly find a wide audience among both traditionalists and newer fans alike.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Applewood Road is out now on gearbox Records.
Order it now via Bandcamp: applewoodroad.bandcamp.com/