The six core members of the ensemble Dustbowl Revival knew it was time to make changes. Perhaps this was just a matter of becoming bored with their signature sound the marks the intersection of folk, soul, and swing. Maybe the departure of two bandmates played into this change in direction. In any case, this is the first time the band entered the studio without road-tested songs. Instead, they hunkered down for two weeks, with many of the songs layered and composed day-by-day in the studio for Is It You, Is It Me.
With each member playing multiple instruments, the band found themselves crafting personal songs, political songs, and incorporating poppy hooks into their material. The project was helmed by Sam Kassirer (Lake Street Dive, Josh Ritter) who undoubtedly had some influence in this shift as well. The group fleshed out their nimble ensemble sound by bringing in new musicians on symphonic brass and local friends to sing as a spur-of-the-moment choir. Their longtime co-writer/mandolinist Daniel Mark left the group but several of his co-writes appear on the album. Bassist James Klopfleisch was replaced by Yosmel Montejo on the album.
Dustbowl Revival is comprised of core members Z. Lupetin (lead vocals/guitar), Liz Beebe (lead vocals), Connor Vance (violin/guitar), Matt Rubin (trumpet/flugelhorn/keys), Ulf Bjorlin (trombones), and Josh Heffernan (drums/percussion). Much of their appeal is the co-leading singing combo of Z. Lupetin and Liz Beebe, who both grew up writing and performing in the theater. In this backdrop, augmented by the brassy, string-laden band behind them, their approach is often uplifting and exhilarating. Their interplay is finely honed, having been together for twelve years now, with ten solid years of touring. Listen to how beautifully their voices intertwine and reflect each other in the solo spots on “Mirror” for example. One can certainly sense producer Kassirer’s influence as the album as many of the same endearing bright melodious qualities of Lake Street Dive.
One hears their intertwining vocals immediately in the opening “Dreaming,” which expresses the vulnerability of revealing secrets every night in front of an audience. One also detects the pop influence in this one too. Then the political bent quickly follows as Beebe sings forcefully on “Enemy,” about a generational split between a daughter and her parents who may have voted in a tyrant and become strangers to her since “Get Rid of You” was inspired by the student activists who emerges after the tragic Parkland High School shooting in Florida.
Yes, there’s some humor and lighter fare too. “Nobody Knows (Is It You)” leans toward their earlier NOLA second-line sound as they sing of bizarre character who runs for President and accidentally wins, then gives it up on a whim when he discovers the good in nature. (If that were only the case, right?) “Ghost” brings more catchy pop behind the mysterious lover who disappears. You may detect echoes of early Paul Simon or Van Morrison in “I Wake Up” or in “Penelope.”
The lush, brass-laden tunes like “Mirror,” “Runaway” and “Sonic Boom” best exemplify the band’s bright, expansive orchestrated approach. Close your eyes – if one were to imagine the kind of music played in heaven, this may well be it. Yet, the band points to the more folk-oriented ”Just One Song” as the album’s centerpiece. It’s an emotional acoustic piece that was included only with Kassirer’s insistence. It’s about a performer realizing that music will overcome all doubts and fears. It’s Lupetin’s finest vocal moment, amongst many strong ones.
This is a stunning record with lush sonic layers, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and infectious tunes. The band may have grown a little weary of their previous sound, but this recording will become an enduring “must play it again” record for most listeners. Of course, headphones are requisite to get truly lost in this wonderful music.