reviewed by Cory McCrindle
Sometimes the best approach with music is to strip it down to the bare essentials. It is in that exposed state that a particular song or even entire album either stands or falls. There is nowhere to hide, no effects or studio tricks to cover up any mistakes. Life Time Blues by No Family is an example of how less can be more. Armed just with a banjo, a guitar and their voices, Amy Goldberg, Amy Keeler and Garrett Johnson have created an album that acquits itself well.
The music No Family plays on this seven track album is rooted in the traditional, and could easily have come from a century ago. The sound is something you could picture yourself hearing coming from the front porch of a rickety old wooden house located somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a comforting sound, one that reaches you on primal levels, honest and unapologetic. It looks you right in the eye. And to this listener, that honesty is very endearing.
The first song on the album is the title track, “Lifetime Blues.” There is a strong early Folk feel to it with Country overtones. It features a banjo and two voices and not a hell of a lot more. But it works because it is both simple and effective at the same time. There is a decidedly lonesome feel to the track that is as haunting as a face staring back at you from a sepia toned photo in an ancient scrap book, and as clear as water from a mountain stream.
“My Mother Sang” is the next track and pairs guitar with banjo. The vocals are absolutely entrancing on this number. There is a lot of soul and emotion in that voice. That’s not to take anything away from the instrumentation, which works very well as a base for this story-song. Again, it is a straight forward track that sounds like you could have found it on a Folkways record.
“Black Rock Beach” follows the rootsy theme of the album and the song sounds like it could be influenced by early Blues. The vocals are rich and well delivered, and the banjo playing strong without being overbearing. This is one of the stronger tracks on the album and might have been made even better with the inclusion of fiddle to add some colour. But as it is, it’s still just fine.
The fourth song, “Going Down,” leaps out for the gate like a race horse and doesn’t let up. It’s a blood-pumping excursion on the banjo and the male/female shared vocals give it a nice touch. It kind of reminds me of – believe it or not – Led Zeppelin on songs like “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” albeit without the stomping or hand claps…or Robert Plant. But there is a very similar ‘reel’ feel to it. Nicely done!
“Burying Bones” features a little bit of studio chatter, the content of which gave me a smile. I’ll let you hear it for yourself to discover why. This is another guitar and banjo number that offers a great vocal performance and some sweet harmonies. It is a sad tale delivered both succinctly and beautifully with no wasted notes or words.
Another powerful track on this album is “Oh My Soul.” It once again features faster paced banjo playing and a nice dual vocal performance. The backing vocalist sounds to me a bit like Kathleen Edwards in this particular song. It is both a satisfying and uplifting song, self-contained and not needing additional instrumentation.
To me, the final track, “Song for John” is the strongest song on the album. The guitar work – it sounds like an acoustic along with a slide guitar – is gorgeous and the powerful vocals equally breathtaking. The banjo part definitely adds to the feel of the song, and the sweeping background vocals add a little relief to the melancholy lyrics. Overall, everything just works on this number.
No Family has come up with a great stripped down album here which may attract those willing to experience this type of music. No, it’s not for everybody, but then again few worthwhile albums are. I doubt traditionalists would have any problem with this release as it sticks very closely to its musical roots. If you have a taste for Folk or would like to acquire one, this would be a good place to start. Life Time Blues is proof this genre of music is still alive and well, and in good hands when a band like No Family lovingly shares it with us.
Life Time Blues is available on Bandcamp.
Top Tracks: “Song for John;” “Black Rock Beach;” “Oh My Soul”
Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good) + *swoop*