The North Carolina band’s improbable revival and renewal.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Bombadil is having a good summer. This is obvious the moment you step onto the spacious porch that wraps halfway around the band’s home in Durham, N.C. There’s a cornhole set stacked in one corner and a cooler sitting out with a six-pack of IPAs on top waiting to be consumed. There’s a card table with four chairs sitting haphazardly around it, and dog bowls decorated with the darkened blue of Duke University, where Bombadil’s founders met as undergrads.
For those unfamiliar with Bombadil’s history, it might seem as though nothing has changed since those college days — that these four talented fellows have spent the seven years since graduation hanging around their stomping grounds, refining their art and strengthening their friendship. But when they gathered at this house for most of last summer to record Metrics of Affection (Ramseur), their fourth LP, it was the first time in four years that the full complement had lived and worked in the same town for an extended period. Musically adventurous and meticulously textured, the 13 self-recorded songs on Metrics prove that living apart hasn’t robbed them of their chemistry.
“We’d just wake up and get to it,” recalls bassist Daniel Michalak. He lies comfortably in a love seat, taking the interview as an opportunity to relax. On the other side of the living room, pianist Stuart Robinson and drummer James Phillips appear equally at ease. Guitarist Bryan Rahija is absent. He’s attending business school in Michigan, leaving the remaining trio to tour behind Metrics on their own.
“It was easy to work,” Michalak continues, “but it was also hard because we lived here. We’d get lazy and sleep in. But it was nice being all together and not being super pressed by any timeline. It was the first time the four of us had been together in a really long time, especially for an extended time. But it was hot. We didn’t turn on the air conditioning at all.”
The opportunity was especially meaningful for Michalak. Bombadil’s 2009 hiatus was hastened by bouts of shooting pain in his arms and legs, later diagnosed as neural tension. At its worst, the agony kept him from feeding himself, let alone playing bass. With Robinson having exited the band a few months before him, Bombadil’s demise seemed all but certain.
That summer, Tarpits and Canyonlands, the group’s second LP, was released without the fanfare it deserved. The album crystallized their ability to utilize whimsy and bombast as conduits for crushing anxiety. Its stately piano chords are buoyed by gorgeous harmonies and melodies that never move the way you’d expect. They sing about birthdays that no one remembered and marriages doomed to fail, their sarcasm keeping complex emotions at arm’s length, but just barely.
The record came out, but there was no release celebration and no tour, just a low-key listening party.
But Bombadil wouldn’t stay dead. Through a combination of stretches and adjustments in the way he uses his limbs, Michalak soon returned to his piano and his bass. At the same time, Robinson found that leaving the group didn’t kill his itch to write songs. Though they had spread far apart — Oregon, D.C., varied corners of North Carolina — the boys of Bombadil were soon visiting each other and sharing songs. In the fall of 2010, they gathered at a barn outside Portland where Phillips had learned some tricks as a producer. In the span of a 10 days, they cut All That the Rain Promises, a stark and sterling departure from the jovial melodies and grinning sarcasm of their past. Bombadil was reborn.
“I think, ultimately, anything we do is going to sound like Bombadil,” Robinson says. “It might seem weird at first, but then you listen to it two more times and then it seems normal.”
They test that on All That the Rain Promises. Opener “I Will Wait” is hauntingly intimate, with Stewart crooning over solitary piano, trying to prop up crumbling religious convictions — ”Oh my Jesus Christ/ Will you bring me back to life?/ Can you lead me to an afterlife/ That I would like?” Every lighthearted scenario and perky melody became the backdrop for stressful situations. On “Laundromat,” absently watching ‘the machines go ‘round’ becomes a time to ponder commitment issues and a relationship with an estranged father. There have always been weighty conundrums lingering behind Bombadil’s winking words, but here the coyness was all but wiped away.
Subdued and dark, All That the Rain Promises felt as much like a coda as it did a new beginning. Conversely, the new Metrics feels like a true revival, renewing some of that old frivolity without forsaking the mature songwriting that made the group’s last effort so powerful. “One More Ring” ambles with muscular bass and lighthearted banjo strums, but it’s also a tale of relics and the way they bring up memories we might rather forget. “If I find one more ring of yours mixed up among my things,” Rahija sings, “I just might sell all belongings to make sure I’ve cut all my strings.” The wordplay is still witty, but the meaning is direct.
“It’s just a different place in our lives,” Michalak explains. “That’s just where these songs are coming from. It’s not like we set out, ‘I’m going to write a sad song now’ or ‘I’m going to write something funny now.’ I don’t really think about it like that.”
At present, Bombadil is diminished. With Rahija in Michigan attending business school, the live band must make do with fewer instruments and different voices singing his songs. But Metrics proves that Bombadil has the ingenuity to work past such problems. Even the missteps, born out of unbridled ambition, are admirable in their way. Take “Isn’t It Funny,” in which Michalak raps awkwardly over a disjointed beat. The hip-hop excursion harkens back to his sickest days. He couldn’t play an instrument, but he could still sing and use a computer — albeit with his foot on the mouse. He made beats and rapped over them, developing a hunger that the new song helped to satiate.
“Bombadil can be whatever we want it to be,” Phillips says. “I guess it makes it kind of hard when somebody asks, ‘Well, what kind of music do you play?’ We’ve covered some ground, I guess. My favorite bands have records that sound very diverse from one another. Maybe I won’t like one, but I generally like all of them. I’d like to be a band like that.”