The Upshot: Attempting to categorize Bob Bradshaw and his 7th release would prove a complete disservice, as he’s one of those rare artists who’s bound to represent something different to anybody who happens to hear him. Folk? Americana? Blues? Roots-rock? Country? All of that. And none of that.
BY ERIC THOM
In the “not what you expected” department, Bob Bradshaw delivers an eyebrow-raiser on American Echoes – 12 tasty originals defying traditional categorization. While the disc’s peculiar cover art might suggest a New Age outing as the inside sleeve conjures the Old West, you’d be hard-pressed to connect either image to the music found inside. American Echoes is, instead, a fully realized collection of masterful songs and fully fleshed-out arrangements that feature an impressive cast of like-minded musicians. Admittedly, it may take some time for these songs to glue themselves to your brain because there’s so much going on, both musically and lyrically – but they will, eventually proving irresistible. Like wet puppies in a rainstorm.
It’s Bradshaw’s vocals that hit you first. His is not an immediately likeable voice – but herein lies its charm and appeal as you come to know him. A mongrel of sorts – you swear you’ve heard this voice before. Darden Smith? Richard Shindell? Think more of a non-alcoholic Robert Earl Keen – a warm, laidback tone with all its rough edges worn off. A disparate collection of songs, each sounds unlike the one before it. The hooks are subtle, but they’re there – the type which sink their roots deeper and deeper with continued listening. So Bradshaw is hard to peg. Why do you need to? An honest singer-songwriter of poetic proportions, he seems both blessed and cursed with a world-weary outlook and a voice to match.
His music is more beautiful than it is cool, a throwback to the ‘60s in some ways. Born in Cork, Ireland, Bradshaw’s time spent in America (Boston) has paid off in his ability to chronicle the good, the bad and the ugly – many of the characters in these songs read like entries from a diary. Mix in the lessons he’s learned from Berklee and it’s quite understandable why Bradshaw dances to a different drummer. He’s a skilled storyteller, painting elaborate pictures as an observer more than he is the subject of each song, arousing our interest as he chronicles each vignette. He’s been there – as have we all.
Kicking off with “Exotic Dancers Wanted”, you’re instantly engulfed by warm, acoustic bass and gentle piano as a full tapestry of acoustic and electric guitar joins Britt Connors and Annie Lynch’s lush backup vocals. Bradshaw mirrors an intersection of Keen to John Prine, possessed of all the confidence in the world, owning the end result. Likewise, “Meet Me” presents a beguiling invitation which leans on Connors’ background vocal as Andrew Stern turns in a tasty, country-dipped solo on electric guitar, all set against the burbling keys of James Rohr’s electric piano. You might pay special attention to the drums and percussion work of Mike Connors, who repeatedly brings much more to the party than a mere beat. A comparably darker “Call It What You Will” is buoyed by Rohr’s delicate touch on piano, lifted further by keyboardist/ co-writer Scoop McGuire. Britt Connors’ mournful vocal support helps darken the clouds behind this stormy relationship despite McGuire’s odd choice of synth. Cue the more upbeat, ”The Assumptions We Make”, driven by the strumming of Bradshaw’s acoustic guitar, challenged by the electric guitar and resonator work of co-writer, Andy Santospago and abetted by Stern. Rohr’s B3 provides real body to the mix over the rhythm section of Ed Lucie and Mike Connors.
Next, audition the downright peculiar, almost angular, “Workin’ On My Protest Song”, which features the dynamic, exploratory, spidery guitar of Andrew Stern and the soft, combined hush of backup singers Connors and Lynch. As Mike Connors provides a powerful foundation of soothing percussion in African proportions, the chorus breaks to reveal one of this disc’s true highlights. The addition of Chad Manning’s fiddle to “A Bird Never Flew on Just One Wing” provides a country feel as Bradshaw’s vocal preens, Keen-like, over Stern’s tough guitar sound and Connors’ fat backbeat. Suddenly, Bradshaw rocks out with a guitar-driven “Weight of the World” which, more Beatles than Petty, more Mellencamp than Seger, commands a charm of its own for the trucker in all of us. Co-writer/lead guitarist Andrew Stern is clearly off his leash and this pounding power ballad offers a distinctive wake-up call – right down to its cowbell – marking the album’s halfway point. Alternately, “Stella” proves an intoxicating love song in the form of a waltz, bathed in Rohr’s B3, Stern’s soothing electric guitar with Rohr doubling up on accordion. “My Double And I” features the sparring, double guitars of Stern and Santospago, offering up wah-wah and lead accompaniment, built around an odd, jazz-fueled swing beat. The more melancholy “Material For The Blues” celebrates the invisible bruises of the heart, reinforced by Manning’s country fiddle and Annie Lynch’s ghosted vocal support. (Take special note of Andy Santospago’s seductive baritone guitar break.) “O Brother” incorporates a slide guitar technique (Stern) that could’ve fallen from George Harrison’s trickbag, yet this device, together with Bradshaw’s bent lyrics, succeeds in conjuring a doomed, too-casual relationship between two strangers championing distinctly opposite needs. The Celtic-edged “Old Soldiers” erupts like American bedrock – all fiddle, banjo and military snare, adding meat to the old adage that, for those who make the ultimate sacrifice, will live forever.
Bob Bradshaw is clearly a different breed of singer-songwriter who has spent a lifetime honing his craft – invested as he is in each and every song. Lovers. Losers. Dreamers and derelicts collide with the hopeful and the helpless. They’re all lovingly depicted here in their stark beauty, wrapped in a readily-identifiable reality – as observed in exacting detail by a writer with the power to see in from the outside, while experiencing life from both sides to be able to tell their tales so convincingly.
DOWNLOAD: “The Assumptions We Make,” “Weight of the World,” “Stella”