Track by track: Jeff Burnham & the Insiders, Lost and Found

Cover of Lost and Found EP -- black and white planet in spaceWhy you need it: you’d like to punch something — in a thoughtful way, applauded by the ghosts haunting your historic barn

Style: balanced on the midpoint between Americana and Heartland Rock

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My first encounter with Jeff Burnham’s music was soggy, cold, accidental, and the best part of a day when I wouldn’t have minded punching a thing or two. I’d wandered up to an apple festival to see another band, had my check-engine light go on just as I got there, discovered that community festivals in mud so deep that you’re slipping and sliding across paths of sand are really not the optimal amount of fun, and then fetched up by a stage, late in a band’s set. . . and it was such a joy that I forgot all the disadvantages of sitting on a sopping hay bale in spitting rain.

Lost and Found is Burnham’s first record as Jeff Burnham and the Insiders, having previously been Tuesday Saints. The EP is poised right on the line between Americana and heartland rock, somehow imbued with that sweet musty wood smell houses out here have. That wood smell–which I love coming home to–raises the perpetual paradox: comforting scent of home or impending rot that’s going to collapse everything? That’s the tension underlying the songs on this EP.

The One suggests the ancient barn Burnham uses as a studio is haunted by the ghost of Tom Petty (a prospect that will have half of New England’s musicians looking for barns, and rightly so), not least because Burnham’s voice has that loving-yet-ironic Petty tone. It’s a fun song, with each “saw you standing there”-type move punctuated by a delicious guitar riff that I found myself waiting for on each repetition.

Saint Philip Avenue is where the tension between comfort and rot surfaces. There’s glowing nostalgia for when “we were laughing, the song was playing,” but the mood is distance, and being “mixed up in this hurricane.” It reminds me of “Tom Thumb’s Blues” in the specificity of the imagery of a troubled place–but the mood is fundamentally reversed, with New Orleans (it’s got to be New Orleans) being a loved place that’s now lost.

You’re Alright is the banger: outlaw workingman’s blues. It’s also where I noticed how often the lyrics include getting into fights. Nadine has a tough job, cleaning up after all the bar fights, but you’ll still want to clap in rhythm (and there needs to be a dance step for “broken bottles on the left and you’re swingin’ on the right”).

Lost and Found has some of Burnham’s best lyrics. “Fallen angel on my shoulder, throwing punches at the wind” is exactly how a bad day of ambition feels. “I used up my faith in my destiny / still gotta fight” is perfect. This is adulthood. The sound is mostly Americana, complete with harmonica, but with a touch of 1990s-era alt-rock optimism, like the ghost of youthful determination.

’61 Ohio Gray brings out the ghosts. The reference to July 3 of ’63 fits with the Battle of Gettysburg, so this is a Civil War song in the bluesy folk idiom of Civil Rights-era music. (Today I learned Ohio was a disproportionately large contributor to the Union armies.) It’s the kind of moody and haunting where you want it to be either a metaphor to apply to all sorts of lost struggles or to be the thing that calls up the ghosts of your ancestors for a chat.

Now, of course, when Burnham talks about the songs later, we can see how many metaphors I’ve read in ways contrary to songwriter intent. The thing with metaphors is, intent is great and gets the song out the door in a coherent format — and they also take on a life of their own, imbued with the ghosts of the listener’s past. So a metaphor does its job if if triggers the right feelings, even if we hear a different story. This EP is full of wonderful haunted feelings that add up to the will to fight on.

 

 

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