Folk Family Revival, Water Walker
Four years is a long time for anybody, and even longer for a musician, who’s liable to spend large chunks of that time on the road, scrabbling and scraping for any way they can somehow get ahead and avoid going broke doing what they love. It’s a long time in which you might stumble, might fall, might get back up again, and might just lay there and wonder if it’s all worth it.
If Water Walker is any kind of evidence, it sounds like the four young guys in Folk Family Revival spent a lot of the time since 2011’s stunning debut, Unfolding, down there on the ground. They’ve picked themselves up and dusted off, but the experience left a mark on them, I think, and on the music they’re making this time around. They’re still young, it’s true, but they’re not the kids they were back then; they’ve had to grow up fast, and growing up fast can hurt. A lot.
Where Unfolding was epic and grand, Water Walker — despite the facetiously(?) grandiose title — is low to the ground, real and human and, yes, pretty broken. It’s at points regretful (see “I Drew A Line,” for one) and at other points cynical and bleak (see “Dream”), and all along, it’s beautiful. Those Lankford boys (Mason, Barrett, and Lincoln, plus Caleb Pace) have learned a lot of harsh lessons about trust and the way the world works.
Take opener “If It Don’t Kill You,” for example; it’s dark and gritty, but also determined and severe, with frontman Mason declaring “If it don’t kill you / it ain’t love.” Then there’s “I Drew A Line,” which carries a whole damn ton of regret, like Lankford’s looking back at the past few years of his life and seeing that it’s not gone the way he wanted it to. Beyond that, it rumbles and rolls like a freight train, or maybe like a update of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” and either way, it works awesomely.
“Dream” starts off somber and minimal, a murky, bleak chunk of disillusionment that slowly builds up the electrified guitars and drums towards the end. It’s very harsh, seemingly smacking down the listener (or himself, maybe?) and destroying their ideas about their own lives and who they are. At one point, Lankford grimly declares, “It’s just a dream / You’re not fighting for freedom,” following it up by proclaiming that they’ve been lied to and fooled; to be honest, it’s not something I’d expected to hear from these guys.
A lot of the album is almost a meta-album, really — these guys do several songs about writing songs, and about the life on the road, and about the trials and tribulations of being a working musician. “Drunk Again” starts off with Lankford declaring that he should be sleeping but is trying to write a song, instead, and then he spins the downtrodden, booze-soaked story of a decline into the gutter. It’s honest and rueful, but also gorgeous and raw, one of the best tracks on Water Walker, by far, and it reminds me of David Ramirez quite a bit, as does the rambling, self-deprecating “American Standard,” as well.
Not all of the album is as rough to hear, mind you. “Sunshine” is thoughtful and melancholy, and also more folky, but with an oddly ’70s California-rock vibe to it. “Marfa” is soft-voiced and haunting, and yeah, I love that Lankford namechecks the Sideshow Tramps in the lyrics, while “Trash” is knocked-down and quiet, heartbreaking and seemingly teetering on the edge. The overall sound there actually makes me think of another H-town roots-rock/pop outfit, The Small Sounds, and that’s no bad thing.
By the time Folk Family Revival reaches the album’s end, with “I Found God,” which is hazy and wobbly, like a drunken stagger down the street set to music, I feel like I’ve gotten a glimpse of what those past four years have been like for the boys in the band. They started out bright-eyed and sure of themselves, ready to take on the world, only to find that the world tends to hit back and people don’t give a damn.
There’s something to be said for wisdom this hard-won, especially when it’s wrapped up in a rootsy, folky, down-to-earth package like Water Walker. They may no longer have those stars in their eyes, but along the way they learned a lot about crafting songs, too.