Eleanor Buckland’s musical upbringing is about as Maine as it gets.
A frequent attendee of Maine Fiddle Camp playing duo gigs with father Andy (Boreal Tordu, Juke Joint Devils), she learned the folk and bluegrass tradition from her banjo-playing grandma and the tight community of folks who fired up places like music school 317 Main Street in Yarmouth and populate stages at Lenny’s in Westbrook.
It’s where she first met the other gals in Lula Wiles, who turned a friendship and Berklee School of Music education (where they studied with the likes of Joe K. Walsh in the American Roots program) into a touring guitar-bass-fiddle trio that was authentic enough to sign up with Smithsonian Folkways and put out records that racked up millions of listens, even as they got progressively more rock ‘n’ roll.
Their March release earlier this year, “Shame and Sedition,” shows the full evolution, chock full of electric guitar riffs, bashing drums, and lead-ins like, “Mary Anne, you better get your shit together.”
Instead of marking a brand-new direction to explore, however, it launched a hiatus.
“I think we’d all been kind of getting ready for a break for a little while,” Buckland said from her home in Brooklyn, New York (not Brooklin, Maine). “But the pandemic delayed the creating of that album, which delayed the release a little bit. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, we might have put the record out and toured it and then started doing different things.”
For her part, Buckland had already been doing some different things, including flying into Toronto periodically starting in 2017 or so to work with Berklee friend Adam Iredale-Gray on songs they quickly realized were the start of a solo album – a solo album where the fiddle wouldn’t appear at all.
The brand-new “You Don’t Have To Know,” the homecoming for which Buckland will celebrate at One Longfellow Square on Nov. 11, is rootsy, sure, but it’s also pop, and indie rock, and even a little bit prog in some of the song constructions – a place where Buckland can explore her inner monologue and relationships.
“I would proudly call it a break-up record,” she laughed when I labeled it that way. But it’s multiple people, multiple breakups, and more about the emotions than the specific experiences.
“It’s definitely weird as I play these songs and listen to them now,” she said. “I feel so far removed from the intensity of the experiences that were the sparks for those songs – I don’t even think about that person anymore – but there’s a fondness for various people as well and I can look back on those relationships and have those songs as mementos.”
And who can’t relate on some level with the breathy desperation in “Wishing Is Useless,” Buckland’s vocals resonating like a struck bell over spare acoustic guitar: “I didn’t know it could get any harder.” As the song builds, brushed high hat and a piercing electric guitar ambling, there is a graceful Jason Isbell-like arc from the naked plaintiveness of “would you get on a plane tonight?” to the raw remorse of, “the worst part about seeing you breathing/ Is having to leave you behind,” that last word playing out in four syllables.
Buckland and Iredale-Gray, however, don’t always deliver that tight, closed loop of a folk song. The closing/title track opens with a pair of verses like a Kathleen Edwards song, pretty straight folk-rock, with a bounce-bounce bass and a pretty electric guitar riff. But then it shifts into a rising and key-shifting string and organ wash, we hear one resonant recitation of “you don’t have to know” and the electric guitar returns all aggressive and irritated.
It was not the big rock chorus I was expecting.
“I’m Not Saying” does deliver that big rock chorus, with Buckland’s vocals breaking into a twangy wail that might set off the goosebumps the first time through, but it’s offset with a pulled-back and quiet pre-chorus, finished off by a lilting Natalie Merchant kind of thing, and sort of inexplicably features a saxophone accompaniment.
And “October” and “How Fast, How Far” both feature ramp-ups or key changes in the chorus or post-chorus that mess with expectations just enough to catch your attention if you happen to have the record on while playing Catan or something (it’s great for that).
For someone raised in the structured and simple world of folk and bluegrass, it’s very much intentional.
“What was exciting to Adam was expanding the boundaries of what you could do with these songs,” Buckland said of their collaboration. “With these key changes and chord changes, we didn’t just want this to sound like an Americana pop record – we were trying to flip some of those norms. … But with each of those choices, I think the listener can find a connection to the emotional or lyrical idea that connects to that choice. We were never trying to just be weird for the sake of it.”
That ability to swerve from Patty Griffin to War on Drugs to Don Henley, though, is what makes the record, and what makes it more interesting with repeated listens. It gets the mind going, too, for what might happen when Buckland picks up the fiddle again.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Amy Allen, “End of a Dark Age” — Seemingly determined not to satisfy those of us desperate for a full-length record, Allen continues to release poignant, beautifully crafted singles. This piece will break you down, Allen intimate in the vocals: “Feast on me tonight.”
• Sons of Alfond, “Better with a Beer” — Scoring 10 points for the “Friday Night Lights” reference right out of the gate, this is stock-in-trade contemporary country, twanged vocals, and a celebration of outdoor, lubricated culture.
• Dead Ensign, “No One Knows How to Do Si Do (Sad Inside)” — Aggressively opaque about who they actually are, this is some of the weirdest and inviting stuff to come across the desk in a while, a mash-up of electronic beats, Cylon vocals, and spoken word, as part of the full-length “What Else Is There To Do,” which is very much worth your 17 minutes.
• Plague Dad, “They Ran Us Off” — Aggressive acoustic, like early Uncle Tupelo with fewer members, this is the first single off an upcoming full-length recorded at Sun Tiki, lo-fi and accessible.
• Friendship Yams, “Porter Brewstead” — From their “Unearthing the Course” EP on Portland’s Sizz Records, this is like an early Talking Heads outtake, with Casio keys and Byrne-like vocals.
— Sam Pfeifle