I found it somewhat ironic that out of all of the press materials that came with this CD, all but a handful were in German, French, and Dutch. I find it ironic because Timesbold’s music is steeped in the sounds of old-timey Americana. For whatever reason, our comrades across the Atlantic have embraced with open arms many of the artists that investigate the darker side of American folk music, which explains why brilliant artists such as Sixteen Horsepower remain relatively unknown in their own country.
While you’re at it, just go ahead add Timesbold to that list. There’s an undeniable American quality to their music. There are sounds on this album that could only possibly come from some American locale, be it an overgrown Appalachian backroad, a camp of hobos waiting to hop the next train, a fiery spiritual revival, a sparsely-populated town on the edge of the Mojave desert, or an empty highway stretching across America’s midwest.
The band’s instrumentation certainly aids in that perception, utilizing banjos, organs, acoustic guitars, harmonicas, mandolins, harmoniums, and about 30 others to craft a batch of songs that have been to hell and back. It’s amazing that these songs have held up as well as they have, because they often sound as threadbare as can be, held together only by Jason Merritt’s warbling voice, a faint string arrangement, or a shuffling drumbeat.
Inbetween the cracks in the floorboards of these rustic compositions seep all manner of atmosphere and ambience. There’s the wheeze that creeps throughout “Sewn in Seems” like a dying gasp, the metallic groans that protest beneath the plucked banjos, marimbas, and strings of “ee cummings,” and the spectral sighs that close out “Water Bearer.” The band’s atmospherics turn these songs into living, breathing creatures that shamble and tumble about, tickling your ears with seductive whispers and desperate echoes. It’s often creepy as anything, and yet utterly captivating.
With music as desolate and worldweary as this, you’d expect nothing less from Merrit’s lyrics, and they don’t disappoint. As with other artists of similar ilk (the aforementioned Sixteen Horsepower, Bonnie Prince Billie, Molasses), the words are often cryptic, the imagery bizarre. And yet when you hear them delivered by Merritt’s voice (which quickly moves beyond the initial Will Oldham comparison) and framed by the band’s music, they make perfect sense. These are snapshots of blasted lands, of Godforsaken places where men still try to eke out a living from the hard ground, where love and innocence are treasured because they are often all too easily corrupted.
Some tenderness does emerge, especially on the heartbreaking hidden track “George Collins,” where Merritt sings of a young girl who mourns by the side of her true love’s grave. But it’s “Van Gogh” that best communicates Timesbold’s vision, as Merritt sings of a place where “The sky, it is huge and it’s frightening and fear digs its holes in the ground.”
When he concludes “Your eyes look like they’ve been damaged by going where Van Gogh goes,” his tired voice rings with firsthand knowledge. Timesbold’s music has returned, damaged and haunted, from just such a place, and their desolate, delicate songs are all the more beautiful and enthralling because of it.