Sometimes it seems that talented musicians and bands simply burst onto the scene and into your awareness like popcorn in a microwave powered by the starship Enterprise. One recent example of this phenomenon is the pride of New Jersey, Railroad Earth. In less than three years this gifted ensemble has solidified its place on the acoustic end of the improv spectrum. The startling and swift success of RRE is due in large part to front man, guitarist, lead vocalist and powerhouse songwriter, Todd Sheaffer.
But the fact is the climb to success in music can be a years-long ascent, and, as this release demonstrates, Sheaffer’s career has been no exception. Recorded in 1999 after the dissolution of Sheaffer’s old band, From Good Homes, this performance predates Railroad Earth but stands as a document of Sheaffer’s nascent talents and burgeoning skills that play such a pivotal role in the band’s sound today.
Armed only with the folk minimum of an acoustic six string and harmonica, Sheaffer’s 12 song set is minimally augmented by the tasteful keyboard of John Ginty and EDNO’s percussion, a combination that proves to be exception to the rule requiring radio broadcasts to sound flat as latex paint on a waiting room wall. Engineered by Mark Clifford and Allison Goessling for WNTI-FM, this recording captures acoustic nuances that are easily overwhelmed by eager hands on the mixing console.
Sheaffer applies solid folk credentials to this set, covering the range between introspection and effective storytelling with a guitar/harmonica style closer to Neil Young than Bob Dylan and a lyrical approach uniquely his own. Although not uniformly successful, Sheaffer does deliver the goods on the majority of these tunes to an audience primed to receive. Strong compositions, “Came Up Smilin'” and “Where Songs Begin” come to mind, have matured into reliable Railroad Earth crowd pleasers while others, such as “Dream of Love” or “When the World Was Young”, have an unfinished feel to them with lyrics that sound fine as early drafts, but lack the polished aptness of “Scudders Lane” and “The Old Man and the Land”.
Fans of the singer-songwriter genre should buy this record and enjoy it as is, a clear sonic document of handcrafted music. If, on the other hand, you come to Dream of Love from the Railroad Earth camp, likely you’ll be impressed by the native power of tunes familiar from the RRE catalog and perhaps struck by the fresh impact of the unfamiliar material.
Dream of Love is an important record of Todd Sheaffer’s artistic evolution. It deserves a place on the shelf.