The Upshot: A thoroughly convincing explication of the old weird Americana, rustic in vibe and intimate in theme, and guaranteed to leave the listener transformed.
BY FRED MILLS
The sound of a man not just coming to terms with himself, but coming to peace with the outside world, Red Hand finds erstwhile Snatches of Pink frontman Michael Rank accepting—though not surrendering to—life’s vicissitudes, and taking solace in its little victories. With 2015’s previous Horsehair (billed, as were its four predecessors, to Michael Rank and Stag, all cut during a whirlwind, remarkably prolific three-year period; this time, it’s only his name above the title), you could begin to sense that Rank had repaired himself following a devastating marital disintegration that rendered him a single dad and left him, though determined to indeed come back, on the ropes. (As I noted in my review of 2012’s two-CD Kin, the marriage “left permanent scars… with all the bile, bitterness, recrimination, desperation, self-loathing, backpedaling, and grasping at straws that a person could possibly summon amid the emotional wreckage.”)
Now, things are different. Even the much-commented-upon Gram/Emmylou vibe of Horsehair, which featured as Rank’s vocal foil Heather McEntire (of fellow Tarheel outfit Mount Moriah), has been altered in the service of the material. McEntire returns to reprise her role, but that, too, is different; she’s less the backing vocalist and sometime duet partner, and more a sonic equal, with the pair sharing the mic in harmony on practically every chorus and verse. In addition, Red Hand has a thoroughly rustic vibe, and while even back during Snatches days Rank was fond of deploying both drawl and twang, this time around he’s immersed himself fully in his Appalachian roots, the album steeped in that old weird Americana that the Band and their ilk latched onto all those decades ago. Just opening track “River Road” alone could convince the casual listener that this was a long-lost collection from the early ‘70s—when a young generation was rediscovering an even earlier generation’s contributions to the grand musical quilt of our country—what with the spare fiddle lines, unhurried rhythm, and the Rank-McEntire celebration of getting along, and in turn, getting by:
“Gonna raise a family
Got this picture of what (that) should be
Still water lies ahead of me
Reflecting all I’ve done…
Doing alright in the morning
Doing alright right around midday
Doing alright in the meantime
Honey that’s more than most can say
Oh honey that’s more than most can say…”
A couple of songs later, in “Jacob,” against a serene backdrop of acoustic guitar and pedal steel, the duo ruminates on the titular character, presumably a child (“I hear you’re doing a little better than you had been doing/ Some time ago/ That boy, he’s growing like a cornstalk/ Swaying in some field”), and how the history between the singer and person being addressed, though ephemeral, remains sacred (“We’re just two ghosts living on borrowed time”). Autobiography or allegory? Knowing how much Rank worships his own young son—I’ve met him, and it’s easy to see why—it’s certainly tempting to pick the former. Either way, it’s as moving as it comes.
Circling back to that Gram/Emmylou notion for just a moment: At multiple points on the record, it’s hard not to think of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, both before and during the personal upheavals that made some of Fleetwood Mac’s middle period so enduring. (Musically, “Jacob” even recalls “Silver Spring,” which Nicks of course was singing to Buckingham.) Red Hand feels more like those collaborations than the Parsons-Harris outings, for as noted above, Rank and McEntire sing almost exclusively in two-part harmony. Even if all the songs were written by Rank, there are moments so intimate it’s hard not to imagine McEntire having some say here and there in the vocal arrangements.
With that in mind… Red Hand comes together most joyfully and most satisfyingly on the sixth song, midway in. A folk/country/bluegrass ballad featuring guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and pedal steel, it’s titled “The Lord He Take Away” and it not only recalls one of Neil Young’s classic melodies (“After the Gold Rush”), it also bears echoes of Young’s “Powderfinger,” antiqued and sepia-toned, and chronicling a loss borne of violence, determined by fatalism:
“Well I heard them boys came calling
I heard you shot one down
I’m a black hat nailed to an old dead house
Ain’t no one been around
I been walking these roads all summer
That breeze its done shut down
If it’s the weight of the world I’ve been feeling these days
I just might have to set it down
And honey it’s alright
There ain’t nothing left for us here tonight
And baby it ain’t our fight
The Lord he give
And the Lord He take away.”
This is what we used to call a “slow-burn” album, one which unfolds at its own pace and on its own terms. The melodies and hooks aren’t obscure, although they can be subtle at times, while the lyrics attain gravity on a gradual basis, through repeated listening to the ways the two singers phrase them, both in tandem and in divergence. The record’s pleasures aren’t fleeting, but profound; and if you have the time to spend with it—not necessarily analyzing, but rather taking it in capturing the stray nuance alongside the bolder sonic or thematic statements—you can’t help but come away from it changed. Transformed, even.
DOWNLOAD: “The Lord He Take Away,” “Jacob,” “The Songs We’ve Learned”