The title of The Farewell Drifters' new album, Echo Boom (as in, the generation made up of Baby Boomers' progeny, and the one the Drifters happen to belong to), is a clue that they're thinking about the big picture, about where they fit, about their peers — and more to the point, they're just plain thinking.
Over the course of their three albums, the quintet — whose lineup became locked in with the addition of fiddler Christian Sedelmyer and bassist Dean Marold — has gone from playing crisp, '60s Southern California-inspired bluegrass to smart, baroque acoustic pop.
Their latest lyrics — written primarily by founding members Joshua Britt and Zach Bevill — are thoughtful, earnest and heart-searching. More than once, Bevill, who handles most of the lead vocals, can be heard pondering what it takes to be a man. "If that phrase pops up on the record," he says, "it's probably because we're trying to figure it out."
Unlike their punk- and grunge-steeped Gen X predecessors, the Drifters don't have much use for irony in what they do — with the possible exception of the new album's cover art, in which all five members are lined up in neckties and Members Only jackets of varying shades, including an aqua one sported by lead guitarist Clayton Britt.
"It started with my brother [Clayton], actually," says Joshua. "He got this very rare leather one. ... We kept seeing them everywhere, so we started buying them. Thrift stores always have like five of 'em. But they're always the extra, extra large gray ones. If you look hard enough, it's kind of like [vinyl] record searching — there's millions of bad ones, but one good one."
(For the record, their enthusiasm for the iconic '80s outerwear hasn't gone unnoticed. Members Only threw them a party in the company's New York showroom and hooked them up with never-before-worn jackets.)
Even more complex than the emotions articulated in each verse, chorus and bridge of Echo Boom is the songs' intricate musical construction, achieved with the help of the band's first outside producer, Nashville pop specialist Neilson Hubbard. Often, the tuneful, sunlit melodies are embellished by layer upon layer of dreamy, perfectly perched vocal harmonies, propelled by clean, insistent rock-style strumming and laced with precise fiddle or guitar figures.
Says Bevill, "While somebody might have to pay more attention to realize Christian and Clayton are virtuosos — because it's not blistering solos all the time, or something like that — I feel like we're still putting their talents to good use in the band."
It's not that the Drifters have shed their '60s influences. "I personally was really inspired by The Beach Boys," says Bevill. "Pet Sounds and the intricacy of those arrangements. That was one of the influences I feel like we let in a little more on this album." The same goes for Simon & Garfunkel. The Drifters cover their song "The Only Living Boy in New York" as a bonus track on the vinyl and digital versions of the new album. When Bevill and Joshua met during Bevill's Belmont days, they bonded over the sophisticated folk-pop duo's Live From New York City, 1967.
During the many decades since Simon & Garfunkel's heyday, it's sometimes seemed like any music pegged as "smart" is doomed to be heard by few ears. But there's a growing pile of evidence — including the warm reception Paul Simon's new album So Beautiful or So What has received — that the moment is ripe for a younger generation of intelligent pop-makers like the Drifters.
"Just the appreciation of our generation for things like Brian Wilson's SMiLE album [which finally saw the light of day in 2004]," Britt says. "If you listen to that album, that's the most intricate piece of art I've ever heard. And all my friends are into it."
They have other examples where that one came from. "I just went to the Fleet Foxes show in town," says Britt. "There were some crazy things happening [musically], and people were paying attention to that. Making interesting music is what I'm attempting to do.... With this album I didn't worry so much about making it accessible to people, because I think interesting music is what's becoming accessible these days."
Bevill brings up the conceptually complex indie anthemics of The Arcade Fire: "Obviously they've gotten huge. They were on the Grammys and all that kind of stuff. Their music has layers upon layers of things happening that are well thought-out and intentional."
Concludes Bevill, "It's gone so far that being intellectual is hip, it seems like."
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