Technology enables sound on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone almost instantly, but the personal connection to the artist becomes pale and distant without cover artwork, without liner notes, or even the comforting tactile feel of the disc and jewel case that are themselves faint echoes of the nostalgic vinyl LP experience. The CD is different, though.
The CD can be conceived as an organic whole in which all the music lives together in the same neighborhood. Each song in this community is invested with a specific role creating a narrative experience as one cut leads inevitably to the next. Like a train, there may be a “hit song” engine that drives the rest, but each car carries its own passengers and freight in which the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. The whole idea of a cloud technology digital library destroys the album concept and works to dissolve the unity of the CD. Tracks are sold for 98 cents each. Every song is an orphan. Cheap, quick, sound bytes trump carefully wrought unity.
And yet, here in your hands, is the promise of something very different. Deliciously retro in its unity, wonderfully conceived as a whole, with a music that is nurtured by the sweet scent of Midwestern soil and inextricably linked to the fascinating characters that inhabit the heartland of America, Kanoka is an astonishing ramble through the heart of Americana soul, a love story redolent of Walt Whitman’s lyrical verse.
Kanoka is unity. In fact, the fictional place name is nearly a palindrome; the album itselfis a palindrome. The title track opens with the sound of a surging train wedded to the soulful whistle of Lloyd Maines’s steel guitar. The final track, “Bottom of the Bottle of Beer,” trails off like a caboose coda in the distance graced with those same train track clacks and Maines’s steel rail wails. The circle is unbroken.
Switchback is very unusual in that the band consists of only two performers in both live performance and recording situations. Marty McCormack and Brian FitzGerald have forged an identity and shared vision over a twenty-five year relationship that has enabled them to enfold others in their music as an integrated extension of themselves. The presence of musician’s musicians, Lloyd Maines on pedal slide guitar and Howard Levy on harmonica, allows Switchback to draw upon the full soundscape of American life. Drummers Jim Hines and Nick Hirka and percussionist Keith Riker inject the pulse that is the heartland heartbeat.
Levy’s harp is woven into the band’s mix on four cuts, but more importantly, there are a pair of extraordinary solo interludes that punctuate the album. The first is a jovial blues cowboy meditation on Western life that makes a seamless transition into the first sweet notes of Maines’s steel guitar that begins “Van Tassel.” The second interlude, a prelude to “Rocky Mountain Express,” dances merrily along its path to a graceful extended arpeggio that ends in a sweetly sustained final whistle tone. And then, from the distance, this is answered in the same key with the onrushing rhythm of the “Express.” This transition is a kinder, gentler nod to the scream as train whistle in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.
Maines’s pedal steel percolates through Kanoka like the Mississippi embracing the heartlands. Crying into the high lonesome American night, poured into another honky tonk round, slipping along Highway 20, the sweet sigh of a waltz as a foil to the life’s bucking bronco in “Rope as I’m Riding,” a lyrical counterpoint to the vocals in “Wrong You Can Write,” the onomatopoeia of water through sand, or a sinister swirling cyclone. There is a little Lloyd Maines melodious fairy dust sprinkled liberally throughout, imbuing the album’s diversity with unity.
Diversity and unity. The beauty of train travel is that you remain the same and your immediate surroundings remain the same, even as the scenery outside the window continually shifts. Switchback travels through the full range of American musical scenery, pausing to visit genres and musicians that have shaped our nation’s sonic history. There is more than a hint of George Jones country in “Pour Me.” “Rocky Mountain Express” rides the same rails as “Orange Blossom Special.” The specter of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is conjured by “Wrong You Can Write.” The tight vocal harmonies of “Water Through Sand” or “Bottom of the Bottle of Beer” reference the country rock sound of the Byrds and Poco. There is even a hint of U2 and Bono in the anthemic vocals of “I’ll Be Damned.” Costumes reveal more than they conceal. Though cloaked in various styles and influences, Switchback remains Switchback. Integrity and truth are enthroned in their music.
Kanoka dispels the borders dividing life from music by weaving non-musical sounds into several songs. Far more than sound effects, the iconic West is invoked with horse whinnies, timeless generations are symbolized through waves breaking on a beach, and the album’s journey is reflected in the rhythmic train sounds that open and close the recording. The thoughtful mix of sounds is emblematic of Switchback’s attention to both nuance and idea.
Kanoka surely will be characterized and marketed as Americana, but this album transcends that commercial branding formula. Kanoka is more than Americana—it is the sound of America itself.
Ron Pen, director
John Jacob Niles Center for American Music
University of Kentucky