Ed Romanoff – The Orphan King
Pinerock Records – 23 February 2018
More storyteller than songwriter, born in Connecticut of Irish rather than Russian heritage (he discovered he was adopted), Romanoff (who also happens to be the founder of global brand communications company PineRock) brings both a poetic and narrative sensibility to his observations on human nature and political events, sung in deep, hardwood tones and wrapped up in a contemporary Americana sound that, nevertheless, bears the imprint of formative influence John Prine.
On The Orphan King, his belated follow-up to his self-titled 2012 debut, he’s linked with Simone Felice as producer who also provides the drums alongside an impressive roster of musicians that includes Larry Campbell on guitars, fiddle and pedal steel James Felice on keys and accordion, Kenneth Pattengale, one half of the Milk Carton Kids, on mandolin and slide guitarist Cindy Cashdollar with Cindy Mizelle, Teresa Williams and frequent collaborator Rachel Yamagata among the backing vocalists.
It starts in literally haunting style with Miss Worby’s Ghost, a simple lyric in which the narrator tells of waking to see the ghost of a young girl who, each night, visits her lover’s grave, himself subsequently falling victim to the same fatal kiss. Introduced by distorted musical box effects, Elephant Man is the first of six co-writes with Crit Harmon, a simply strummed steel and accordion-laced number about a freak show attraction who dreams of shaking off the sutures and having a normal romance and life with the girl who runs the tilt-a-wheel waltzer.
It’s followed by a second Harmon collaboration, A Golden Crown being a blue-collar love story between a former prizefighter and the girl working behind the café counter who first takes and then returns his ring, his broken heart mended when, drowning his sorrows, he meets Kathleen from Kilkenny (hence the song’s Irish fiddles and bodhran flavour) who now wears it instead. Underscored by the brooding atmospherics, there’s less of a happy ending to their joint account of The Ballad of Willie Sutton, the story of a bank robber being released on Christmas Eve after a lengthy stretch behind bars and living the dream of the Bonnie to his Clyde waiting in the car. As with most dreams, there’s a waking twist, while, out of nowhere, the song ends with a fierce lengthy electric guitar break and a political swipe about how “the crime that’s worse than robbin’ a bank is runnin’ one.”
They take a different musical tack for the organ-driven soulful slow heartache lost love waltz The Night Is A Woman, Yamagata and Mizelle on backing with trumpet and flute burnishing it with a warm glow. Their songwriting credits are augmented by the addition of Josh Ritter for another slow soulful sway, Blue Boulevard (Na Na Na) conjuring the spirit of Cohen while harmonium, Celtic fiddle and mandolin provide cover as our hero drives through the night to collect his lover as she slips out of her parents’ home and they take off into the night.
The final Romanoff/Harmon number, Lost and Gone, is different to anything else here, Mai Bloomfield on mournful cello and the distorted spoken opening before the song unfolds as a lament for lost innocence and idealism as it intermingles war and faith, Romanoff having stated that the song’s actually about the Statue of Liberty and whether people still remember what it stands for.
There’s two other co-writes. Penned with Lisa Drew and arranged for cello, bass and trilling piano, the simple strum I’ll Remember You is another reflection on a sundered relationship and keeping the memory in his heart, but, backed by accordion, piano and pedal steel, Yamagata and Williams again on backing, it’s the swelling title track’s teaming with Mary Gauthier that, drawing on their own backgrounds of adoption and orphanage, is arguably the album’s finest moment, Romanoff’s semi-spoken delivery putting me in mind of Chip Taylor.
The four remaining numbers are all self-penned, three of them, the stripped down bluegrassy Without You, Romanoff and Pattengale harmonising, a Tex-Mex shaded Leaving With Someone Else (where he shows off his falsetto) and, adorned by trumpet, fiddle and mandolin with Mizelle and Williams on harmonies, the sway-along Less Broken Now, the most obvious echo of vintage Prine.
Constructed around harmonium, banjo and lap steel, it ends with its longest track, the satirical six and a half minute gradually squalling slow march Coronation Blues, its self-aggrandising speak-sing narrative voice clearly channelling Donald Trump hacked off at the lack of an enthusiastic response to his inauguration. It’s somewhat at thematic odds with the rest of the album (although you could argue the downbeat mood is symptomatic), but that’s a minor quibble given the big picture his songs paint.