reviewed by Michael Thomas
The most important ingredient in a good folk song is a strong story. The thing is, there’s a gold mine of stories that already exist, and there’s a good chance Robbie Bankes is familiar with most of them. He’s so far the only musician I’ve heard of that is studying folk music in Norway, and he brings his wealth of knowledge in the genre to his debut release.
Foothills is a mix of original and traditional songs, and all of them sound like songs Bankes has been singing for his whole life. He has a slight gruffness to his voice that brings to mind a wariness of the present, and a sadness that embodies most of the songs. Among the songs are at least a few dead people, one man condemned to die and lovers gone away.
The story and lyrics are front and centre, but the arrangements are subtly excellent. Melissa McWilliams’ drums are masterful, with little cymbal rolls and the faintest percussive taps in songs like “Charlie’s” that add a little musical backbone. Charlie Hase’s pedal steel is the instrument you’ll probably hear the most outside Bankes’ guitar and banjo.
As hinted at above, the overall feeling of the album is sombre, starting off with the traditional ballad “Geordie.” In the song, Geordie’s wife rides all day and night to beg for his life—spoiler alert, it does not go well. In “Unquiet Grave,” a man stands vigil over the grave of his dead lover. There’s “Ivan, Ivan,” a longer song about a man whose farm goes under despite his attempts to feed his family. It’s an ode to a man who did his best.
In “February Snow,” one of Bankes’ originals, he’s talking to a lover who is gone somewhere, and he marks the passing of the time through browning plants and temperature changes. Come to think of it, nature plays a big part in his music, like the slow-burning “Shelter Belts.”
Even in the more upbeat songs, there’s a tinge of sadness. “Alice” follows the sad story of Geordie with a song about a man dreaming of Alice’s “sea-blue eyes.” He’s dreaming about a life with her, but unfortunately many of his letters “have not met with replies.” Whether this dreaming is wishful thinking or the titular Alice is just busy is unknown, but given the tone of the album, she’s probably moved on.
There’s a vast maturity on Bankes’ first album, and I’ve love to hear more of his original material on his next recording, given the strength of his takes on a traditional songs. Bankes likely has many, many more stories to tell.
Top Tracks: “Ivan, Ivan”; “Magpies”
Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)