Bombadil Hold On
(Ramseur Records – March 24, 2015)
Review by Rob Bockman
Durham’s Bombadil has always been a band in flux, with members dropping in and out based on extenuating (and attenuating) circumstances; on Hold On, their fifth record, that sense of diffusion colors the entire experience, leading to a record that’s as scattershot as it is dull. All three members write and sing their own songs on the record, but it ends up coming off as a rote rotation rather than an artistic thesis about holistic evolution through diversity.
There’s variety enough in Hold On—the lugubrious synth-pop of “Forgive Me, Darling” is balanced by the drifting ELO-waltz of “Love is Simply,” the lulling harmony of “Amy’s Friend” contrasting with the bouncy “Rhapsody in Black and White”—but gone is the whispery folk of previous records, in favor of weighty and reflective overinstrumentation. Nothing defines the album like the overstuffed “Sunny December,” a gentle piano ballad with rapid-fire lyrics that scan exceedingly poorly, like latter-day Avett Brothers or Conor Oberst’s solo work, which features a “Love will break you apart/Love will break you apart” chorus. That kid-gloved enjambment is a recurring bug on Hold On—it’s as though Michalak, Phillips, and Robertson are overflowing with things to say, but they’re all clichés, like being cornered by an overbright and insecure media studies major in a bar. The yelping “Love You Too Much” sounds like hyperanesthetized Tune-Yards, all descending piano and ascending falsetto, but yields one of the more united tracks on Hold On—the easy rhymes and anodyne sentiments that color the entire album are still here, but in a way that comes off as honed, rather than precious. In contrast, the Francophonic “Framboise” is a malebolgia of preciousness—rhyming “I can tell” with “mademoiselle,” using a chamber-pop harmony hook between verses, and, saints preserve us, tossing “déjà vu” in there to really drive it home.
Hold On is internally varied and vivacious, and there’s total commitment from the Bombadil crew—and that kind of verve is always worthy of praise—but it’s more a statement of sincerity than a work of art, and one that is, at times, actively embarrassing for the listener. It’s unfortunate that a song in 2015 runs with lyrics that sound like they were elided from an Eric Clapton b-side, but “Rhapsody in Black and White” has god-awful lyrics to match the god-awful title: “Could you wrap your cocoa arms here,” and a chorus of “Don’t be hatin’/hatin’ on a boy thinks you’re the best.” In the hands of another band, it could seem like a kind of ironic transgression through reflexive regression; unfortunately, Bombadil is earnest as ever, so this isn’t a genre pastiche or artist parody, just lazy songwriting that tries to merge pathos with provocation: Stephin Meritless, if you will. That’s not an easy attempt at scoring points off Bombadil, for the record—rather, when you start two separate songs off with “Love is…” on a single LP, you’re inviting a comparison to the patron saint of heart-sleeved cabaret pop. That kind of referential analysis is needed, even—the reference points for the album, per multi-instrumentalist Daniel Michalak, include “Ernest Hemingway, Ronald Dahl [sic], [and] Shel Silverstein,” which provides some insight into the Bombadil aesthetic: a group feinting towards quirky humanism that loses sight of its goals in the details, as affected as it is affectless.
Check Out: “Love You Too Much,” “Amy’s Friend,” “Bill You for Your Trash”
Skip: “Framboise,” “Rhapsody in Black and White,” “I Can’t Believe in Myself and Love You Too,” “
Setting: Be nineteen and in a production of Pippin
NOTE: Bombadil will be playing as part of the “Fork & Spoon & Friends” showcase at the Music Farm on Thursday, April 16th; check out the link here to find out more and to purchase tickets.