The Cactus Blossoms,
You're Dreaming
(Red House, 2016)

The Pines,
Above the Prairie
(Red House, 2015)

These two discs arrived in the same package from the St. Paul-based Red House label. As they played, I thought, on hearing the Cactus Blossoms, "Mmm, Everly Brothers." The Pines elicited "Ah, new-age folk." A few days passed before they garnered another listening, eliciting the thought, "Well, yeah, all true enough, but these are pretty good." Not only that, but with each successive exposure (more than a few) they just sounded better and better, warming up a bitterly cold New Year.

As Above the Prairie implies, the Pines are engaged in a kind of aerial-view survey of the western edge of the Upper Midwest,which happens to be where I live, in a rural town of 1,800 souls. Inevitably, the recording is sweet and romantic and not much connected to the gritty, complicated, sometimes exasperating day-to-day realities of life out here where the prairie shades into the plains. You can be romantic about any place if you don't live there. The Pines (David Huckfelt and brothers Benson and Alex Ramsey) live in the Twin Cities, which is in a different universe. Aside from an occasional, otherwise unexplained "you," Above the Prairie is a destination devoid of other people, as in "hell is...."

Actually, minus the spacey soundscapes, the album's inspiration could be Bruce Springsteen's visionary folkish song "My Beautiful Reward" (on his 1992 Lucky Town; with its memorable image of out-of-body flight through still, silent pastoral scenes, it could as readily be an imagining of an afterlife). Probably, though it would be nice to think so, the opening number, "Aerial Ocean," does not take its notion from the tongue in the cheek of the great anomalist and satirist Charles Fort, who in Book of the Damned (1919) conjured up the "Super-Sargasso Sea," an immense body of water suspended somewhere above us, home to "old cargoes from inter-planetary wrecks; things cast out into what is called space by convulsions of other planets" and to frog falls, red rains and other atmospheric oddities.

The thing of it is, though, that Prairie pleases and moves. The original songs are blessed with resplendent tunes and sharply crafted lyrics, and they yield beguiling, otherworldly mental pictures. If you're going to write numbers with titles like "There in Spirit," "Hanging from the Earth" and "Come What Is," you've got to do it right, and the Pines do it so, which is to say keep matters minimal and to the bare point; let listeners supply the rest. Only "Here," a rather ponderous, pretentious choral piece, does more than required, though luckily not enough to sabotage the entire enterprise.

Every time you see the Cactus Blossoms mentioned, a reference to the Everly Brothers can be no more than a sentence or a paragraph away. The two Blossoms don't bother to deny their influences in the pop and country music a generation or two removed from them. No one who does not need to examine his or her soul will complain about this because (1) the Everly Brothers were wonderful and (2) You're Dreaming is a godawfully lovely album.

Brother-harmony acts came to the fore in hillbilly music in the 1930s: the Monroes, the Bolicks (known as the Blue Sky Boys), the Delmores and more. Bluegrass, invented in the latter 1940s, was almost defined by the sounds of Ralph & Carter Stanley, Sonny & Bobby Osborne, Jim & Jesse McReynolds and others. Mainstream country had the legendary Louvin Brothers. Today, the Gibson Brothers make their own stellar contribution to the tradition (and their most recent album, Brotherhood [Rounder, 2015], honors past genetic-harmony heroes). In the latter 1950s and early 1960s Don & Phil Everly, who as sons of influential guitarist Ike Everly grew up in a country-music family, introduced brother harmonies to early rock 'n' roll.

Their last names notwithstanding, the Minneapolis-based Jack Torrey & Page Burkum are in fact brothers. Obviously, they learned to sing as they do by a lot of careful listening to the Everlys, but they missed the stale-imitation part of that, opting instead for the fresh and thrilling. On this, their debut, they co-produce with neo-rockabilly artist JD McPherson. The sound is lean, largely acoustic, and the songs, most written by Torrey, are seriously melodic.

The Blossoms' lyrics don't echo the teenage sentiments of the Everlys' best-known records. Those lyrics haven't aged well; "trouble is/gee whiz," anyone? The words express an adult sensibility, often a wry wit, that not only puts childish things behind but elevates the Blossoms to the front rank of current roots-influenced writers. If the Everlys had better melodies and harmonies than lyrics, for their part the Blossoms have them all. You're Dreaming is as impressive a first album as I've heard in a while. You may think they don't make 'em the way they used to, but they just did, and not only that, they improved on it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 January 2016

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