“Gonna ride them power lines to the west ‘til I find my way / across that Golden Gate / or somewhere in L.A. / I miss Californ-i-a.”
It’s easy to envision Driftwood writing “California,” the opening track from their fifth studio album, Tree of Shade. Behind the gentle violin plucking and distant “oohs,” you can picture the Binghampton, New York natives piled into a tour van en route from St. Louis to Santa Fe, far from home, tired from the last show, but still fantasizing about the places the road can take you. That wistful imagination fuels much of the record, making it their richest and most contemplative yet.
Contrast that image with the album’s studio origins, as told to The All Scene Eye by singer/songwriter and violinist Claire Byrne: Tree of Shade was the band’s first time sharing creative control with their producer and sound engineer, and the bulk of the album was assembled in a ten-day studio retreat to the Catskills. As a result, the finished product is often an exercise in concise statements.
That makes for their most brilliantly focused work in “Lay Like You Do,” with its tense snare hits and slow, churning banjo rolls. It also means many of the album’s most interesting cuts are its shortest, where in the past they may have stretched out in repeated live performances. “Goldmine” sees the band at its most thrillingly dynamic, opening as a piano ballad, breaking into a run with a kick drum and tambourine crescendo, and ultimately crashing into a heart-rending violin solo in half-time; a whole album’s worth of emotional rise and fall compressed into 2:40.
The draw for Driftwood is still their unique blend of classic pop and contemporary Americana, and with the production help of Simone Felice–whose work on The Lumineers’ Cleopatra you may recognize–the band synthesizes much of what made indie folk a driving force in the past decade of popular music. “New Years Day” recalls Fleet Foxes in its atmospheric harmonies and “Stick With Me” busts out the Bon Iver doubled falsetto. In both cases, Driftwood brings directness and warmth to a style often plagued by overindulgence on one side and ironic detachment on the other.
That’s the tradeoff; in ditching the propulsive, high-energy numbers that made a name for them in the past, they skillfully shift into thoughtful, midtempo tracks built on bittersweet scenes from the road–from “Lost Child,” where “nobody’s got any money and America is flying by” to “Hello,” the beleaguered post-tour homecoming anthem that closes the record. Here, the band musters one last stirring a cappella buildup, as if raising their glasses together and recommitting to the traveling life they all chose.
Tree of Shade is an exciting album, but less for Driftwood’s usual folk-rock fun and more in a Beatle-esque command of melody that lends itself to complex emotionalism. I could listen to the flat-out beautiful chorus of “Stick With Me” for easily two or three times the track’s 2:23 runtime, but if their best ideas have to butt up against their most economical production, it’s just as well – you can say the same about Revolver.