Desperation and salvation often have a parallel existence as evidenced by the role of religion in in the worst of times. Perhaps it is the hope of a better life to come, that light at the end of the tunnel, that allows people to hold on in these dire times. More likely it seems, in this band’s view, it is the resolve of faith more than any real optimism. Frontier Folk Nebraska mixes Dust Bowl desperation with Bible Belt religion for an album that chronicles the struggle of faith in trying times.
Recorded with traditional, almost exclusively acoustic, instruments, The Devil’s Tree is a step back in time, away from the happy sheen of modern comfort and convenience to a time when hope for the rewards of heaven was sometimes all a person could cling to. Like poverty, the music is sparse. The guitar work is simple with some subtly moving slide parts. Low energy bass lines and understated drums are the background of the bleak musical landscape. Accordion and violin are the drone of its even less welcoming middle ground. While the singer lacks the range to have a truly good voice, there is just enough twang and tension to make it the perfect voice to walk through the desolation, on one hand pleading to be saved and on another resolved to continued suffering in this life. Under the covers, there is just the slightest hint of pop, so slight that it is likely that very shred of hope that still remains in the farmer standing on his parched land as a dust storm approaches. As they sing, "It’s hard to be like my Savior," it’s clear that even this last shred of hope or faith to cling to doesn’t come easy.
The most obvious comparison to The Devil’s Tree is likely Uncle Tupelo, but that shouldn’t obscure the influence of the Violent Femmes, whose bizarre perhaps tongue-in-cheek religious imagery and deep roots in American music manges to conjure up similar visions of the snake-handling periphery of Christianity in this country’s poorer parts. While Frontier Folk Nebraska avoids the strange goofiness of the Femmes, they certainly tap into that same history.
For an unsigned band, there is little to complain about. If forced though, it might be worth mentioning that the production is rather poor. Granted, this album shouldn’t have pristine sound, but there are times when some of the lower parts clip a bit and that kind of rawness detracts from the effectiveness of the sound. It’s a minor complaint though and one that I might even fail to mention on an album with more glaring weaknesses.
Despite having only heard stories of the Great Depression, Frontier Folk Nebraska has managed to create its soundtrack. More importantly, they do it in a way that can relate to the depression (and shred of hope) that exists today under a facade of happiness.