Pharis and Jason Romero – Sweet Old Religion
Borealis – 18 May 2018
Hailing from Western Canada, Pharis and Jason Romero have previously released several albums of beautifully crafted songs and were featured performers at Celtic Connections festival on their first UK tour back in early 2015. Sweet Old Religion is their follow-up to 2016’s Juno Award-winning album A Wanderer I’ll Stay. While continuing with the duo’s trademark new-style old-time sound of tightly intertwined vocal harmonies and softly jangling banjo and acoustic guitars, Pharis and Jason also stretch their wings here with some slightly more mainstream Americana stylings. It’s an engaging and feelgood recording from the first couple of Canadian folk.
Talented craftspeople as well as musicians, Pharis and Jason also have a personal story that would make for a gripping feature film. Having met in California where Jason originally started his banjo-building business, they moved some years ago to Pharis’ tiny backwoods hometown of Horsefly in British Columbia, Western Canada. There they established the latest incarnation of the J Romero Banjo Co workshop on their rural homestead, working together to create an increasingly sought-after line of beautifully crafted artisan banjos. One night in June 2016, the workshop burned to the ground, turning their business, several newly built instruments and the couple’s own collection of priceless old guitars to ashes. The fire also consumed the nearby cabin where Pharis and Jason were sleeping while the adjacent house was being renovated. They escaped with their lives and their two small children. With their home and business now rebuilt, chief songwriter Pharis seems to have drawn renewed inspiration from the couple’s frontier lifestyle and supportive network of family and friends, and the new album Sweet Old Religion was recorded at their home in Horsefly.
The title track kicks off the album with the Romeros’ trademark gently swinging guitars and lilting vocals. The overriding theme of this collection is set by this serene but catchy tribute to love, home and family. The co-written Stitch in Time has a nostalgic air and possesses that rare quality (shared by a number of these songs) – original compositions that sound like they could be classic traditional songs. Salt & Powder ups the pace, a chugging toe-tapper with rolling Scruggs-style bluegrass banjo back-up and Pharis’ strong clear voice. Old World Style reverts to a gentle approach but with a distinctive and lovely Spanish feel, in keeping with some old-time cowboy lyrics, and there’s even a spot of rather tasteful yodelling! Jason is back on lead vocals and his characteristic subtly chiming banjo sound for Age Old Dream, a sad and yearning tale of a failed gold miner perhaps, with Pharis adding spot-on vocal harmonies. The way that their two voices blend beautifully and seamlessly is one of the duo’s greatest strengths. Jason is known as a top-notch banjoist who uses several different styles – clawhammer, old time 3-finger style, and straight-ahead bluegrass picking, which perhaps explains his trademark sound.
On The Salesman, Pharis and Jason move away from their heartland of acoustic duetting and into something with more “crossover” appeal, including drums, electric guitar, bass and pedal steel (featuring guest players John Raham, Patrick Metzger and Marc Jenkins). These guest players are heard on various other tracks but come to the fore here. That pedal steel, along with fiddle from Josh Rabie, keeps it all country, and the song as a whole is an appealing slice of radio-friendly Americana, reminiscent of the Mike & Ruthy Band, or even the classic sound of The Band itself. This and several other cuts also feature mandolin maestro and fellow Pacific Northwest resident John Reischman. You Are a Shining Light seems to be a homage to a precious friend who has passed on, while Come on Love showcases a playful old-time country honky-tonk feel (with a touch of Cajun) which reminds me of Seattle band Western Centuries. The fiddle, pedal steel and Telecaster strut their stuff and you can imagine a crowd of dancers doing the two-step to this one in the Romeros’ barn.
Album closer Babes, Mothers and Fathers returns to Pharis’ favourite subjects of love, children and contented family life, and the lyrics find her counting her blessings as she moves through the world. The Romeros’ love for the land and the mountains, skies and flora of their way-out-West rural home provide the other main themes which run throughout the album. Sweet Old Religion communicates genuine warmth and feel-good grooves, delivered with beautifully crafted musicianship and singing – a textbook illustration of Pharis and Jason’s delightfully handmade, homegrown music.