Loosing a band member is always a tricky proposition for a group. Do you replace the individual, or go on as is? Is it a time to strike out on a new path, or a moment to rededicate to the original vision? The oft-heard refrains of ‘they were better before X left the group’ or ‘They should have just called it quits after Y left’ are a testament to how hard the challenge can be.
The Crane Wives faced this challenge recently when the band’s banjo player, Tom Gunnels, decided to move on to other opportunities. The challenge was even harder given the fact that Tom’s banjo style had been an integral component of the groups sonic DNA. The rest of the band (two acoustic guitars, bass, drums, and dual female vocalists) is a fairly standard format in the broad marketing term of Americana. While adding a banjo to such a mix isn’t exactly revolutionary, his style of playing was more contemporary folk then Appalachian, which gave the band a more distinctive sound that separated them from other groups. Continuing without a banjo player would surely alter the band’s sound and not necessarily for the better. The safe bet would be to find another banjo player with a similar style and continue on as if nothing had happened. The group decided to take the risk though and moved forward as a four piece.
Coyote Stories, the band’s first album as a four piece, is proof that this was the right choice. While the loss of the banjo created a void in the group, they’ve ably filled it by playing into their talents and opening up the possibilities of their sound.
Those talents include the vocal harmonies of the group’s lead vocalists and guitarists Kate Pillsbury and Emilee Petersmark, with backing vocals provided by drummer Dan Rickabus. While the vocals have always been a core component of the group’s sound, in many cases they’ve now been pushed into the undisputed spotlight, especially on songs like Rockslide and Sleeping Giants.
Rockslide and Sleeping Giants are also great examples of another of the groups talents, the rhythm section of Dan and bassist Ben Zito. In these two songs they propel the song forward with a beat that not only provides structure for the song, but helps to set the mood and inform the song. Whether it’s the barely contained rhythm of Rockslide or the majesty of Sleeping Giants. The two know when to step forward with their playing and when to step back and let something else take the spotlight.
The final talent are the songs themselves. There is a fearlessness in the group’s songwriting. A willingness to touch nerves and cut veins in a public and cathartic way. The previously mentioned songs, as well as ones like Hard Sell or The Hand That Feeds, will fill dance floors and get people stomping their feet, but songs like Unraveling or Never Love an Anchor will keep someone safe during a long dark night.
The Crane Wives definitely feel like a part of the current generation of indie folks groups, but while many of their contemporaries are focused on mining the past, looking for some kind of authenticity, they seem content to mine their own experiences.
Allies or Enemies:
One day a man is thrown into a dungeon for commiting a minor crime. Shortly after arriving the man is befriended by another prisoner, who shows him how life in the dungeon functions. He tells him the rules and the rituals. When food arrives, who has the favor of the guards, and who to avoid. He also tells the man the history of the dungeon. How there was a time when everyone in the dungeon was in chains, but that they had shown the guards how easy it was to remove the chains, and so the guards no longer chained them.
Over time, the man began to grow accustomed to how the dungeon functioned and to grow comfortable with the limitations that this life served to him. He spent many years talking with his friends and playing games. After awhile though, he became restless. He started to think more and more about the freedom that lied outside of the dungeon. His friends told him to put such thoughts out of his mind and to simply accept his situation, but he could not make himself do so. It had become a fever in his mind that would not break.
One day the man asked a friend, “Has anyone ever tested to see if the door is locked?”
“What?”, his friend asked in surprise.
“Has anyone ever checked to see if the door is truly locked?”
“Of course someone checked that the door was locked!” his friend said incedioously. “Do you take us for fools?”
“Have you checked the door?”
“Have you seen anyone check the door?”
“No, but I’m sure someone has.”
“May be it was locked, but it isn’t anymore.”
“That’s stupid! You’re acting like a fool. Stop asking such silly questions. In fact, drop the whole subject completely. Haven’t we shared our blankets with you? Haven’t we shared our food? Is our hospitality not enough for you? Are you to good for what we have to offer?” His friend asked accusingly.
“I am grateful for your hospitality and care, but I still find myself longing for my freedom.” The man replied, yearning that his friend would understand his need.
“It’s insulting is what it is. You will either give up these silly notions completely, or we can no longer be friends!” His friend stated authoritatively.
And the conversion ended there, and the man tried to put the thought out of his head, but he couldn’t. Try as he might to distract himself, he kept thinking about the door.
One day he could not take it anymore. In the middle of the night, when everyone else was asleep, he creeped up to the door and turned the handle. His heart filled with joy when the knob turned with no resistance. He slowly opened the unlocked door and peeked into the cooridor beyond. There were no guards. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anyone at all around.
The man considered leaving right then and there, but he could not do that to his friends, and so he closed the door and resolved to tell them the next day of his wonderful discovery.
The next day he found all of his friends huddled together in the dungeon discussing the matters of the day. He came up to them with great joy in his heart and began to tell them what he had found the night before. They all listened, and when he was done, they all broke out into laughter. How foolish was he to think he could just leave? They all seemed to know that the door was unlocked, even though they had all previously told them it was locked. When he pointed this out, they told him it was in fact the outer door that they were refering to. This door was a distraction. Everyone knew that the real door was locked. They laughed and ridiculed his thoughts of escape and longing for something more.
The man slinked away and felt a great deal of shame and foolishness. Of course there would be an outer door. Of course that door would be locked. Why would everyone still be here if the way out was so easy to obtain?
The man put the thought out of his head and continued his life in the dungeon. A year had gone by and eventually he began to laugh along with his friends at his foolishness about trying to escape.
Around the anniversary of his opening of the inner door though, he found his thoughts returning to the door. One night he could not take it anymore and he wondered out the inner door in search for the outer door so he could verify that it was indeed locked.
As he walked down the maze of cooridors, the air began to grow chillier. Finally, he turned a corner and found that at the end of the hallway was an open door. Beyond the door was the outside. He stepped into the night air and took a deep breath and looked around. Everywhere he looked was lush greenery. He considered walking into the woods that surrounded the prison, but he loved his friends to much. And so he returned to the dungeon and waited until the morning to tell them what he had discovered.
The look on his friends faces the next day, after he had told them what he had found, was a mixture of sadness and concern. They admitted to lying to him about the outer door, but only to protect him. They told him that the truth of the matter was that they could leave when ever they wanted, but that the world outside the prison was a dangorous place and that he was not prepared to live out there. He was not prepared for the challenges that he would face, and so he was better off living in the prison. He would surly die a horrible death if he left them.
“Do you think you could take care of yourself with out our care and hospitality?” they said.
“You could come with me. We could all be free together!” He replied.
“So now you are the warden telling us what we should do and where we shall go? What gives you the right to order us so?” they asked angrily?
“I figured you would want to know what it is to be free.” He pleeded with them. “Don’t you want to see the trees and feel the night’s breeze on your face? The sun’s warmth on your skin?”
“To die of exposure or hunger, you mean. This is foolish, you can leave if you want, but we are staying. So if you do go you do it alone. And alone you will die.” They said in a way that ended the discussion.
The man thought on this. He did love his friends, and he did not want to leave them. They were also right that he did not know where he would find food out in the wild. And it had been chilly. How would he stay warm? And so he decided to stay. At first, he still wondered out the outer door now and then to breath the fresh air and look out on the forrest, but even this he eventually stopped doing.
It was sometime later that the urge to be free took hold of him a third time. At first he fought the urge and tried to put it out of his mind, but after awhile it became aparent that it would not pass. One day he decided it was time to go. It hurt him to not say goodbye to his friends, but he knew they would just try to talk him out of it. And so, he simply packed up his belongings and slipped out, first the inner door, and then later, the outer door.
He walked for sometime through the forrest, before he stumbled on a path. He followed the path, even though it was quite rocky and sometimes hard to find. Eventually, he was surprised to find a village. The people in that village were kind and generous and welcoming. They gave him a place to stay and shared their food with him. He quickly found a way to contribute to the prosperity of the village and took great pride and satisfaction in his work. Eventually he fell in love and got married and lived a happy fulfilled life.
Now and then he would think about his friends back in the cell. He would wonder if he should travel back to that place and tell them what he found. He never did though.