Barrel Harbor – Songs of Illness and Bad Luck

“American” is often times these days not an adjective, sadly for myself as an American, which I use fondly. Nevertheless sometimes art seems to be able to transgress the boundaries of present-day politics and show us something beneath the veneer of things. Songs of Illness and Bad Luck by the outfit Barrel Harbor falls undeniably under the moniker of Americana.

However, one will be hard-pressed to find any dreamy-eyed patriotic sentimentalism here. As the singer and lyricist Bill Nehill dejectedly inflects;

“I was told that Americana is along these open roads, but I never knew that Americana could be somewhere so alone…”

In many ways it is this “so alone” that is painstakingly examined on this album. These are campfires songs for watching both the dreams of a nation, and the dreams of an individual, burn up into smoke.

Nehill is a literate writer in the tradition of Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, or Nick Cave; however add to this a musical ferocity and urgency akin to the Swans, Joy Division, or even Black Flag, and you end up with something quite unique. Nehill’s talent is for creating characters that inevitably, due to the intensity and unpretentiousness of his delivery, seem to be autobiographical, then allowing us to watch them crash and burn along the pitiless highway of life.

The album commences with the almost unbearably fragile and plaintive ditch song; a haunting acoustic guitar with an unadorned, almost falsetto-like voice creates a mood as sadly beautiful as it is uneasy. This atmosphere is not again found on the album, which from here on in abandons itself to more overtly menacing song structures.

After “miracle motel”, a paean to the phenomenon of the hourly-rate American roadside motel, the album explodes into route 19. Far from the fragility of ditch song, route 19 is an angry tale that takes on an (anti) anthem-like quality about a life spent in (unsuccessful) rebellion. Here the rock-n-roll tradition of the rebel-hero is deconstructed with a cynical hand; the end message is; the authority one is acting out against no longer even acknowledges the individual. This de-construction of American country, folk, and rock themes continues throughout the album. Mr. Nehill takes familiar subject matter deconstructs it and then re-presents it in a way that imbues it with the power to make us see it, to feel it.

After route 19 collapses we are treated to a bleak ride through a lachrymose, and sometimes downright nihilistic journey of words and sound. The album progresses through no train for the broken believer, a bitter lament for the death of dreams collective, and individual, the outside world, a harsh misanthropic piece with spoken vocals full of disillusionment, a car full of girls were we are given Barrel Harbor at their most caustic; a pummeling death-knell to innocence.

Next the album returns to more introspective grounds with a wedding song, a giddily hateful account of a wedding from the perspective of one separated by the joining of others. The conclusion of the album is reached in the memorable torn down highway, a song that, despite its complete ambivalence to anything akin to “pop-sensibilities”, manages to stay in one’s ears for a longtime after listening. By the album’s ending in a cataclysmic wail, Barrel Harbor have taken the listener through a harrowing journey into the black-heart of modern disillusionment, as well as the timeless struggles of those on the outside of whatever particular inside there may be.

To make comparisons musically, I would venture to say that this album should appeal to fans of the Swans, the Willard Grant Conspiracy, Sixteen Horsepower, or anyone with an open mind who likes their music dark, honest, thought-provoking, un-danceable, and not prone to cause cavities.

artist: Barrel Harbor
details: cd released by the now defunct label Advent Blues.

It's available through mailorder at:
Bill Nehill
83 Tioga St
Buffalo, New York 14216