Big Tribe – In This Together
Based around the cities of Baltimore and the nation’s capital, Big Tribe has a base trio lineup of Peter Paynon, Bonnie Eyler, and Joe Heutte, but their creative brain trust recruits a lot of added imaginative help to see the trio’s creative vision through. Their second studio album, In This Together, features a dozen songs that are the obvious product of a refined songwriting sensibility, but they wouldn’t reach their full potential without the additional aid of Big Tribe’s supporting cast. Paynon, the group’s main songwriter, has an abundant imagination that rarely settles for the expected – it is the mark of a great songwriter that you’d mistake these songs for no one else’s work. He establishes an identity from the first track on and it never wavers. His songwriting enormously benefits from the presence of a vocalist like Bonnie Eyler, but Paynon’s own singing is every bit as unusual as his artistic imagination.
“Martha” starts In This Together off with the sound of a train whistle. The meaning underpinning the song’s lyrics has a variety of likely interpretations and that’s the song’s greatest beauty – Paynon’s writing leaves the door open for listener’s imaginations to take over. There’s some gripping lead guitar lines scattered throughout the song and the acoustic guitar chugging away underneath gives the opener a clear musical backbone. Some of the album’s following tracks aren’t nearly as clear. The quasi-title song “All in This Together” and its following track “10,000 Years” have distinctive vocal approaches, Paynon in the former and Eyler in the later, but the songs never achieve the same level of withering focus heard in the first song. “The Final Boat Out”, however, is one of the album’s premier cuts thanks to the electric guitar work as well as lyrics and arrangement alike that doesn’t waste a single note or word. Paynon’s voice, while never as aesthetically pleasing as Eyler’s, has a deceptively simple effect – his approachability as a singer draws listeners into the imaginative web of each performance.
Eyler, however, gets the album’s spotlight moment with her vocal on “How the Mind Wanders”. It’s virtually impossible to not be impressed by the songwriting facility on display here – this song rings out with such apparent sincerity that it sounds like it has been ripped from the pages of Eyler’s own life. “The Cat Song” is one of In This Together’s most interesting songs because it steps so far out of conventional musical textures while remaining tethered to recognizable devices of melody and structure. Much of Paynon’s lyrical writing is metaphorical and/or symbolic, giving the album’s best cuts a literary quality unlike many of his peers, younger or older, working today. “July Carol” is tabbed as the album’s first single and its melodic virtues make it quite clear why. It has its own character, as well, thanks to the audacious use of choir voices to strengthen its already creative atmosphere.
Big Tribe’s second release will undoubtedly make a deep and positive impression on new listeners while retaining those fans who found their first album, From the Fringes, rewarding. This is unassuming, but quietly confident, music. In This Together largely deals with rather weighty subject matter, but the songwriting never forgets the importance of sweetening the pot some and challenging listeners with unusual songwriting turns. There are some dips in the track listing, but they are never enough to render the album a failure. Instead, Big Tribe is clearly building on the first album and continue to develop the rich potential they’ve displayed from their debut onward.
8 out of 10 stars