“Quirky” is a word that has often been used to describe the North Carolina-based chamber/pop band, Bombadil. But their fifth studio release, Hold On (Ramseur Records), doesn’t include the kind of characters who have inhabited their previous releases. There are no circus animals like “Oto the Bear” from Tarpits and Canyonlands or a philosophizing Moby Dick from Metric of Affection’s “Whaling Vessel.” Instead, in a sense, the characters are all of us. The songs explore the most human of experiences, love.
Bombadil, made up of Daniel Michalak, James Phillips and Stuart Robinson, addresses the whole spectrum of romantic love on the musically eclectic Hold On, but especially the loss of love.
Robinson plumbs the bitterness of lost love in three piano-backed ballads. In “Love You Too Much,” his voice rises in pitch and vulnerability in the chorus: “oh god will I ever be past you?” while Michalak and Phillips harmonize a Motown-style response, “walking on past…” In “Sunny December,” Robinson sets the tone with the opening line, “Love is a disease,” and then sends syllables tumbling in breakneck speed over simple piano chords in a lament about the hopelessness of love, including this apt comparison: “like a cat you’ve been petting for every day of every single week, but when you need it and when you’re feeling weak all it really wants to do is fall asleep.” He comes up for air at the end with the quiet, resigned admission, “Love is hard.”
His third ballad, “Honest,” explores infidelity and misunderstandings in relationships until it devolves into the repeated line “where I lost my mind,” accompanied by an explosion of electronic drums beats, the chaos of the percussion providing a fitting instrumental counterpart to the repeated lyric.
The percussion is a standout element of the album. It’s not relegated just to time keeping, but, rather, is a full melodic partner to the other instruments. When it enters “Amy’s Friend,” its subtle accents lift the energy level of the song, which is already served well by the trademark Bombadil harmonies. Another note about “Amy’s Friend”: It’s one of the only songs on the album on which original Bombadil member Bryan Rahija appears, playing guitar and ukulele, and sharing songwriting credits. (He also played guitar on “Framboise” and provided feedback and support for the album as a whole.) It’s been some years since Rahija toured regularly with the band, but he had still been figuring prominently on studio releases as recently as the 2013 Metrics of Affection. Hold On is the first album that is largely post-Rahija.
Long-time Bombadil fans might wonder if the band could pull it off. They did. The album starts with a bold move, a layered trumpet fanfare provided by Michael Stipe in the beginning of the opening song, “Coughing on the F Train.” Vocal harmonies play a more prominent role than they have in any previous album. Influences from R&B to hip-hop to 90’s synth pop are peppered through the songs. The vocal melodies are consistently catchy.
The most relentlessly ear-wormy, most instantly accessible song, surprisingly, is “Framboise,” which is half in French. Michalak and Robinson share lead vocal duties, Michalak in French and Robinson in English, with melodic hooks that evoke early 60’s pop music. This is another song where the percussion makes a strong melodic contribution. Recorded in a lively wooden room, and overdubbed, with great attention paid to the tuned pitch of the drums, those drums sound almost impossibly bright and crisp.
After the exploration of love, mostly unrequited or lost, throughout the album, it seems a kindness that we’re left with the lovely, hopeful “Love is Simply” as the final song on the album. The string arrangement, played by Josh Starmer (cello) and Sally Mullikan (viola and violin), soars. The song suggests that we don’t have to make love so complicated: “talk is complicating, tongues are obsolete; books that are overrated tell us we should never meet.” But, rather, love is something that, if carefully tended, can grow and flower. “Love is never one thing forever, better tend your garden, kick the frost, pick the peppers.”
Old fans might miss some of the quirkiness of previous releases, but they should appreciate the earnest exploration of relationships, the intricate instrumental arrangements, the flawless harmonies and the memorable melodies. For new listeners, this release is an excellent place to start their journey into the world of Bombadil.