Bombadil: “All That the Rain Promises”
Ramseur Records, 2011
by Sarah Hall
“Into each life a little rain must fall.”
This observation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is often called up and quoted when misfortune happens. But how many of us remember the lines preceding it: “Be still sad heart and cease repining; Behind the clouds the sun is shining…”?
For the Durham, NC, band Bombadil, clouds were gathering two years ago. Just as they released their second full-length album, “Tarpits and Canyonlands,” Stuart Robinson left the band to pursue another degree. Then Daniel Michalak was sidelined by crippling tendonitis that made performing impossible. Bombadil was forced to cancel the promotional tour that should have followed the album’s release. The other two band members left the region: Bryan Rahija relocated to Washington, DC and James Phillips journeyed to Oregon.
Bombadil’s chances for continuing their musical mometum seemed as remote as their geographical separation. But now, much to the delight and relief of their fans, the band is back, and intact. Robinson has returned, and Michalak is cautiously healing.
The period of silence did not mean creative inactivity, but was instead a time of dormancy and regeneration. And also metamorphosis, since Bombadil has changed.
Their new album, “All That the Rain Promises,” set for release Nov. 8, still possesses the qualities that make the band stand out: poetic, intelligent lyrics couched in musical arrangements that manage to be unique, unpredictable and accessible all at the same time. There are still delightful bursts of vocal harmony and virtuosic instrumental passages.
But gone is the hyperactive trading around of a plethora of instruments, a trademark of the band’s earlier performances. This latest group of songs strips away distractions and seems content to be subtle. The songs speak for themselves with an economy of means, with only the instruments that are needed, nothing extraneous.
The album’s folk-like simplicity may be partly the result of the rustic surroundings in which it was recorded: in a barn. Not just any barn, though. The barn is on the grounds of Pendarvis Farm near Portland, Oregon, the site of the yearly “Pickathon” festival. It’s also the same barn where the Decemberists recorded “The King is Dead” not long ago. The spirit of brilliance that surrounded the creation of that epic work may have still been hovering in the rafters since it appears to have been smiling down on Bombadil.
The barn also yielded another gift to Bombadil: a name for the album. Lying in the barn was a book titled “All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms” by David Arora. The band members used the book to hunt for mushrooms, and then they appropriated its title. How could they not? The storm had passed, leaving not destruction, but life-giving water. And ideas were popping up like mushrooms.
Much of the album has a dreamlike, whimsical quality. There’s a penchant for pentatonic melody and open harmony, reinforcing its folk-like tone. The songs tend to stay rooted in only a few chords, but unpredictable harmonies and metrical shifts to make the songs adventurous in other ways.
Bombadil doesn’t just sing phrases; they play with them, and revel in them. An example of this is the treatment of the phrase “I’ve been waitin’ after weekend after weekend after” in the song “Laundromat,” a track that sparkles. The listener is left hanging mid- chord progression at the end of the anecdotal “One Whole Year” after phrases have been fragmented and bandied about. The song “Flour, Water, Sugar” comes across as a hybrid between nursery rhyme and an electronically manipulated madrigal.
Bombadil takes mundane objects — a belt, a wall, a laundromat — and turns them into metaphors for universal questions and situations. And among the lyrics are poetic gems:
“The snack machine is stuck between the TV and magazines that talk about our self-doubt and the things we can’t live without;
“Boxes from the ceiling to the floor, books she never read and clothes she never wore;
“It was too early to breathe;
“I think my eyelids are broken. I should see nothing when I close them, but I see your face…,”
One song on the album seems out of step with the storytelling and whimsy of the other numbers, and that is Robinson’s moving lament “I Will Wait.” It’s a gospel-tinged plea reminiscent of both Psalm 22 and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” delivered alternately with despair and resignation. As the first track, it seems a strange way to usher in this latest album. But it would have disrupted the mood had it appeared later. And it couldn’t be last, because this collection of songs needed to end optimistically. So it greets the listener with a sobering moment of reflection before moving toward the light that follows.
The last song, “Unicycle,” concludes the album by summarizing the tone and attitude of this opus: stripping songs, and life, down to the bare essentials, and focusing on balance. Michalak sings, “Going fast is overrated, and falling off is what I’ve traded.” He has had to slow down and adapt to survive musically. And that has led to this triumphant return, after the rain.
Longfellow also wrote, “Art is long and time is fleeting.” Sometimes artists have to resist the urge to hurry up and accomplish something. In Bombadil’s case, they have patiently produced what I predict will be an enduring achievement.
For more information, visit www.bombadilmusic.com.