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Have Gun, Will Travel – Science from an Easy Chair (This is American Music)

Have Gun Will Travel - Science From an Easy Chair
12 February 2016

Like NJ power-poppers The Successful Failures, this Florida roots-rock foursome enjoys writing songs infused with a historical bent, as I learned when reviewing their 2009 second LP Postcards from the Friendly City in Big Takeover issue 66. But while that album documented numerous native tales from the band’s hometown of Bradenton (its lyric sheet insert was cleverly printed in the style of the town’s newspaper, the Bradenton Chronicle), this fifth full-length is a “concept” album that focuses entirely on one non-local event: British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s fateful 1914-16 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition aboard the ship Endurance. Unlike Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 single “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which commemorated another (more recent) ship’s sinking, earnest, erudite singer Matt Burke doesn’t deliver a straightforward third-person narration. Instead, he attempts to interpret various key points of the story from Shackleton’s and his crew’s perspective. The ominous opener “By Endurance We Conquer” even features a recorded sample of the real Shackleton announcing the voyage, backed by a haunted, ringing acoustic and lightly chugging cello. Its murky mood recalls New Model Army singer Justin Sullivan’s “Ocean Rising,” from his similarly sea travel-themed 2003 LP Navigating By the Stars.

Burke’s busy bassist brother Daniel and spirited stickman Jean-Paul Beabien flex their muscles on the two brisker, galloping numbers that follow, “Spirit of Discovery” and “True Believers.” Both songs are instilled with a sense of hopefulness and idealism, borne from the exhilaration of searching out new frontiers, as the perilous trek gets under way. While the bouncy, skipping “Madhouse Promenade” is similarly upbeat, its subject matter becomes forbidding as the journey begins to go awry. Describing the moment when the ship first becomes overwhelmed by a terrifying, wind-whipped storm, a panic-stricken Burke (as Shackleton) frantically proclaims, “This can’t be happening/this wasn’t part of the plan.” (“Madhouse” also namechecks the LP’s title, which refers to a Ray Lankester-penned popular science book which the crew read on board the Endurance to pass the time.) This leads to the LP’s most alluring track, the pretty, peaceful “Goodnight, Sweet Chariot” – highlighted by Scott Anderson’s sighing lap steel guitar – as the now-shipwrecked crew bids adieu to their submerged, icebound vessel after it had “put up a noble fight” for “30 days and 30 nights.”

The whomping, carnivalesque, horn-laden “Good Old Shakespeare” follows, a eulogy to the loyal sled dog and pack leader who died on the trip, one of 70 hounds that accompanied the crew. Next, on the hushed, violin-laced, Decemberists-like “The Rescue Party,” Shackleton and five others set off for South Georgia (720 nautical miles away) on the newly-fortified lifeboat James Laird, vowing to return for the 22 crewmembers left behind on Elephant Island (which the entire crew had reached via three lifeboats, following several months of camping on an ice floe). The slowly building, cathartic “Despair & Redemption on Elephant Island” then gets inside the head of one of the deserted crewmen on the desolate island as he agonizingly yearns for his family. Finally, on the sanguine, Bob Dylan “Chimes of Freedom”-evoking closer “Bottom of the World,” the same crewman, ecstatic about heading home after being saved by Shackleton four-and-a-half months later, recaps the story while showering praise on his courageous and determined captain. Boasting full-bodied playing and production, Science is like an arresting book on tape, but one you’ll want to listen to over and over. (thisisamericanmusic.com)

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