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Music Review: Sci-Fi Romance: The Ghost of John Henry

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Two years after their debut album …and surrender my body to the flames was released, Los Angeles-based indie folk group Sci-Fi Romance is back with a concept album about steel driver John Henry, a post-Civil War American folk hero who fought and won his battle—man versus machine—in the long-running Industrial Era to save his livelihood before losing his life. It’s a pretty bold move by Vance Kotrla and crew, and one that translates into a mostly impressive sophomore effort.

“No machine will beat me down” Kotrla defiantly sings in “Steam Drill Blues.” It’s a lyric and vocal part that highlights the passion of Henry’s plight, and features the loudest rock guitars on the album—the perfect accompaniment to the sentiments expressed in this standout song.

The cheery and swingin’ “We Used To Sing” contains multiple (and excellent) cello solos by Jody Stark, and honest lyrics that match the music—about no longer being able to sing those “sad lullabies” due to finding love. Speaking of love, the delicate, acoustic guitar-based chord voicings of next track “Tomorrow May Take You” are indeed lovely, especially in the choruses, and the light, brush sticks courtesy of drummer Kurt Bloom add the right amount of delicacy to this album highlight.

Also worthy of repeated listens is the straight-forward folk rocker “Broken World.” With lyrics like, “In the cracks, there’s beauty,” it reflects a more positive outlook on this tough life that Henry lives than the song title might have one think.

The upbeat folk rocker, “John Henry Part. 2,” is the follow-up to the comparatively more moody album opener, “John Henry Part. 1″ that picks up where the group’s more somber first album left off. Most of the rest of the new album is in the quieter camp of folk songs, and even spiritual in one instance (“God, In His Wisdom”), but one surprise is the growling vocals of Kotrla at the end of “More To Rust.” It’s the only place on the album (or any release of his, for that matter) that would give one a clue that he used to be in a death metal band (Black Spiral).

And as good as Sci-Fi Romance’s first album was, it was a bit too dark. So if you prefer your folk music to be more upbeat but to still have a serious, literary concept behind it, you may dig this new album of theirs. Stream it at this link, and buy it from the band’s website in physical or digital form.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.