Nels Andrews

“Barroom Bards” – Nels Andrews

A wistful 3/4-time shuffle with mysterious narrative force, effortless melody, and a cumulative intensity. Bearing an attractive vocal and stylistic resemblance to Michael Penn, Andrews sings with the kind of offhand command not as common as it ideally should be—durable, concrete words flow from his mouth on top of crisply arranged textures via a strong descending melody; he’s afraid of neither putting his voice front and center nor of giving us many other agreeable sounds to listen to. I especially like the interplay between the mandolin and the electric guitar, which are not ordinarily instruments that seem to nod too specifically in the direction of one another. Here they both add thoughtfully to the underlying acoustic guitar strum; this feels less like mere accompaniment than orchestrated composition.

And this is another one of those songs that does not reveal itself to me in terms of narrative, no matter how many times I listen. I either can’t figure out who Poor Sweet William is and what he’s done or maybe I just don’t want to; there’s a part of me that craves the spellbinding versus the manifest. Andrews’ clear baritone and his often arresting word choice (I love: “I grew long then cut off my hair”) are all that I need.

“Barroom Bards” is a song from the album Scrimshaw, Andrews’ third, due out this month in the US. The Santa Cruz-based Andrews has for some reason had much more success in Europe than the US to date; the album has been out there since this past spring, and garnered fine notices. Scrimshaw was produced by Todd Sickafoose, who has worked previously with Andrew Bird, Ani DiFranco, and Anaïs Mitchell, among others. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.