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Music Review: Fred Eaglesmith – Tinderbox

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You don’t name an album Tinderbox unless you want to light a few fires. Fred Eaglesmith’s newest album has a barnstorming fervor, a fire-and-brimstone vision of what’s going wrong with America. And even if he couches it in Grapes of Wrath-ish folk blues, don’t you be fooled for one minute – this is topical stuff.

That working-class bitterness Barack Obama took flak for talking about? Fred Eaglesmith can cite you chapter and verse.

How can you ignore a lyric like “That God you got is a fancy god / And he’s not the one I know” (“Fancy God”), or “Bells softly ring / Beneath their steeple / They’re selling souls / And they’re dealing people” (“You Can’t Trust Them”), or “The church is like a tinderbox / The preachers got a match / Salvation is a raining down / And falling down the cracks” (“Tinderbox”)?

Something’s got this man riled up but good.

Alongside these satires are the laments of poor working stiffs, songs like “Sweet Corn,” “Chain Gang,” “Shoulder to the Plow,” “Worked Up Field,” “Shoeshine” – the titles are a fair indication of the glamour quotient here. “When you got no reason / Keep on believing”, he sings wryly in “Shoulder to the Plow,” “Doesn’t matter if you don’t know how / Never mind if that horse is blind / Keep your shoulder to the plow.” Fleshed out with jangly instrumentations, slogging rhythms, and incantatory repetitions, they’re the bedrock of this hypnotic album.

There’s more than an touch here of Tom Waits, both in Eaglesmith’s craggy vocals and the noirish instrumentals, which are full of dissonant steel guitars and washboards and banjos. But unlike Waits’ gallery of eccentrics, Eaglesmith’s no-name slobs are deliberately generic Everyman figures. Don’t expect romance, either – the only love song is the poignant “Quietly,” about an affair running aground on depression and despair, the fall-out of lives lived without hope.

I appreciate the fact that Eaglesmith doesn't belabor the specifics; he's less a satirist than a moralist. The gap between haves and have-nots, between true believers and fellow travelers, concerns him more than any particular political issue.

But what I appreciate even more is the musical spell he casts, with an un-gussied-up blend of folks, blues, and bluegrass that's quintessentially American. Having accumulated a sizeable following over several years by word-of-mouth rather than media hype, Eaglesmith may be poised right now to break through to a wider audience. But I get the sense that he won't sacrifice his weathered humanism to do so.   

Eaglesmith’s fierce populism rings sincere; there’s no aw-shucks Nashville fakery here, no flannel-shirted posturing. And bleak as his picture may sound in some stretches of this CD, he manages to redeem it in songs like “I Pray Now”, “Get On Your Knees,” “Wheels,” and “Stand,” bursting through with indomitable spirit. Eaglesmith’s insistent faith in that human spark shivers through this entire album; it’s a moving thing indeed.

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About Holly Hughes

  • Alyssssaaaaa

    Oh!!!! I SO wish that *I* was just discovering Fred!!!! What a treasure. I’m a Canadian and have had the pleasure to see Fred and The Flying Squirrels many times. He just keeps on getting better. Washboard Hank has moved on and Willie Bennett had medical issues a year ago.
    I always think of Fred and his songs as ‘Country for the Intelligentsia’ He has an amazing sense of humour that comes across in his songs but REALLY spins your pigtails when you see him live.
    That man can tell a story!
    IF you EVER get an opportunity to see Fred Eaglesmith ..particularily in a small venue.. get a ticket and go. You are in for a truly GREAT show!

    I am truly a FredHead

  • Nanette Park

    Nice review!! I have been a fan of Fred Eaglesmith for a few years now. He has some awesome tunes. Hope he comes back thru the midwest (MO) soon.

  • Ah yes, I love finding an older artist and then having the joy of listening to their back catalog.

  • Thanks, Mat. Apparently Eaglesmith’s been working under the radar for years; I’d only recently learned about him myself. I still need to work through his back catalogue, but that’s something to look forward to.

  • Very nice review Holly. I had not heard of Eaglesmith before, but I’ll add him to the list.