This year is still young, and I feel my journey to discover new music is off to a promising start. Is it coincidence or, dare I say it, am I more willing to step out of my all too comfortable ’60s and ’70s bubble? I suppose it’s a little bit of both, but no reason to start sounding like a shrink and go deeper into self-analysis. At the end of the day, all that matters is the music. And the music by Collective Dustbowl on their just-released new album Is It You, Is It Me sounds intriguing to my ears.
Until earlier today, I had never heard of this band that hails from Los Angeles beachfront neighborhood Venice and has been around for close to 12 years. Is It You, Is It Me, which came out yesterday, is their fourth full-fledged studio album. Their catalog also includes a “super EP” and a live album. So who are these guys?
According to their website, Dustbowl Revival has always been about pushing the boundaries of what American roots music can be. In many ways, they could have continued creating joyful, booty-shaking songs and cut-to-heart folk-rock ballads that lift up their transcendent live shows – and mining new energetic material from the place where folk music, funk and soul meet.
But the band’s newest album, Is It You, Is It Me, coming January 31 via their own Medium Expectations label and Nashville’s Thirty Tigers, is something different entirely. Produced by Sam Kassirer [Lake Street Dive, Josh Ritter, David Ramirez] and engineered by Brian Joseph [Bon Iver, Local Natives, Sufjan Stevens], it represents the latest stage in a band that never stops evolving and refuses to stand still.
This is my first exposure to Dustbowl Revival, so I can’t tell how the new album is different from their previous releases. But as a semi-retired hobby musician and a music fan for more than 40 years, I’m confident enough to state I know good music when I hear it. And what I hear are catchy songs, nice harmony vocals and solid musician craftsmanship. Of course, I also realize assessing music is very subjective.
Dustbowl Revival’s core members are founder Zach Lupetin (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Liz Beebe (lead vocals, ukulele), Josh Heffernan (drums), Connor Vance (violin), Ulf Bjorlin (trombone) and Matt Rubin (trumpet). So, how does a band with this interesting sound like? Let’s get to some music to find out!
While their website doesn’t make it clear who is writing their music, I found this document suggesting all tunes are credited to the entire band. But I’m not sure this is 100 percent accurate since all songs co-credit Daniel Mark, who according to the website was their long-time co-writer and mandolin player, who co-wrote “several” of the songs and recently left. Their bassist James Klopfleisch exited as well, but none of these departures appear to have prevented the band from recording a great album. For the recording sessions, he was replaced by Yosmel Montejo.
Take a listen to the opener Dreaming, apparently a tune about stage anxiety. I dig the harmony vocals, which sometimes remind me a bit of Fleetwood Mac (check out the lines, Well, I lost all control/and I don’t know how to get it back) and the horn work on that one in particular.
Enemy has a cool brass groove and features compelling vocals by Beebe. Yes, it’s pretty pop-oriented, but I don’t have a problem with it since it sounds great! Apparently, this track was the album’s lead single.
On Get Rid of You, things get political with school shootings that sadly seem to have become the new normal in America: Well it seems every week there’s another one on the TV/you change the channel, say it’s never happen to me/but just you wait and see ‘cause you can’t stop the kids from hearing that kind of blasting/Echoing down the hallway like a bell ringing out in hell… “The gun control debate and the stubbornness with which our country refuses to adapt and pass meaningful legislation has been one of those things that really rankles me,” Lupetin told Rolling Stone. “But the kids in Florida seemed to refuse to believe that that was OK anymore. That was really inspiring to me…A lot of our popular music now feels very nihilistic, consumer-driven, and empty. I feel like there was a way to write a song where it could have an almost punk-rock fun chorus but also be about kids standing up to their elders.”
The last tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Let It Go, a quiet and reflective tune, featuring more of Lupetin’s and Beebe’s beautiful harmony vocals.
I’ve been trying so hard to be
a better version of me
I found that note I wrote
When I was twenty one years old
I thought I’d figured it out
And I still don’t know my fate
And maybe I’ll never escape
I’m trying to let it go
Let it go
Let it go
Let it go
Let it go
Let it go
Let it go…
“We’ve always tried to explore different sounds within Americana/roots music and never wanted to stay in one place, which maybe confuses some people but also intrigues other people who always want to see what’s happening next,” Lupetin commented on the album to Billboard. “We’re trying to bring our music to a bigger audience. I think at a certain point we never fit into just the folk and acoustic world, and I’ve always been a huge fan of rock ‘n’ roll and of artists that can transcend genre. I wanted to be able to tell a bigger story that could be heard by more people than just the group that supports folk music.”
The music press seems to be pretty upbeat about the album. “Is It You, Is It Me highlights the topical songwriting and eclectic sound of the L.A. collective,” noted Rolling Stone. “…like nothing Dustbowl Revival has ever created during its four-album run. And that’s just the way frontman Zach Lupetin and his bandmates wanted it,” asserts Billboard. Finally Glide Magazine: “Close your eyes – if one were to imagine the kind of music played in heaven, this may well be it…this is a stunning record with lush sonic layers, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and infectious tunes.” Okay, while “music played in heaven” might be a bit over the top, this is a fun album that prooves (note to myself) that not all new music is generic and soulless.
Sources: Dustbowl Revival website and Facebook page; All Eyes Media website; Rolling Stone; Billboard; Glide Magazine; YouTube