- The Grackles, Marshlands
(Self-released, CD, digital)
Ariel Zevon and Duffy Gardner, both rural Vermonters, released a joint effort in February under the name the Grackles. A farmer and stonemason, respectively, the pair touted the record, Marshlands, as a folk-rock opera. However, no discernable story or through line emerges amid the album's 12 tracks. Rather, the tunes barely make an impact, let alone whisk the listener away into an engrossing tale.
The biggest problem with the album, engineered by Bennett Shapiro at Middlesex's Lovetown Recording, is that it lacks even a modicum of polish. Don't get me wrong: Music is far too often mechanized, quantized and pulverized into cookie-cutter crap. And sometimes the most moving moments come from a place of rawness. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea to release an album in which notes are fully missed on the regular.
Overall, the album sounds woefully thin, and not just because the musicians accompany themselves only sparingly with acoustic guitar, organ, harmonica and piano. Hardly any percussion appears, save for the incidental snapping sound of plucked and strummed guitar strings. Their instruments rarely come together, making solo appearances but seldom working in harmony.
Vocally, Zevon and Gardner default to dull unison singing far too often. Rather than using an abrupt shift to unison from layered harmonies, which would have greater impact, the duo opts to not only sing the same melody as each other, but often the same melody as their instruments. It's all surprisingly amateur, especially given the relative polish of Zevon's previous solo work — and, of course, her heritage as the daughter of rock icon Warren Zevon.
The Grackles' songs mostly lack staying power. "Jingle" stands out, but for all the wrong reasons. Ostensibly a self-aware "commercial break" smack-dab in the middle of the record, the novelty song is crass. "What part of marshmallow / Do you not understand," Duffy sings, while Zevon barks "marshmallow" and "I understand" in flat echoes. "That they're toasty and they're roasty," the pair continue, followed by, I shit you not, "Chewy / And they're gooey." While 6-year-olds might get a kick out of such a silly song, it's hard to imagine adults getting down with this saccharine tune.
Further blunders include "Fiending," which may or may not comment on the opioid crisis. Its sour harmonica blasts sound like dying waterfowl. "Howl" is appropriately named. The singers' strained vocals border on animalistic, and not the good kind, like in a viral video of a British dog that sings with a startling clear vibrato.
That's not to say the record is a complete wash. "Catch and Release Me" twinkles with delicate yearning, and closing track "Why Wouldn't We" finally serves up some dynamic interplay between not only the singers but their instruments, as well.
Overall, the record is a forgettable entry into Vermont's boundless catalog of folk records. Small moments throughout suggest better things may come on subsequent entries from the Grackles.
Marshlands is available at CD Baby. Zevon performs on Saturday, July 20, at the Den at Harry's Hardware in Cabot.