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The Lowdown:

Harpeth Rising

Chris Burgess (percussion/vocals), Maria Di Meglio (cello/vocals), Jordana Greenberg (vocals/violin), Rebecca Reed-Lunn (banjo/vocals)

Based In:
Nashville, Tennessee



Tales From Jackson Bridge

Release Date:
October 3, 2013

Independently released

Previous Releases:
Harpeth Rising (2010), Dead Man's Hand (2011), The End of the World (with David Greenberg, 2012)

Americana, folk, string folk, progressive folk, bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, newgrass


Related Articles:

Harpeth Rising, Tales From Jackson Bridge cover art

Rating: 8 out of 10



October 29, 2013



Harpeth Rising: Tales From Jackson Bridge

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


The key to good music is always crooked hats and fishnets. Always. Ok, well, maybe not, but at least this proves the members of Harpeth Rising can strike a statuesque pose in addition to making unique, compelling music. (l-r) Rebecca Reed-Lunn, Maria Di Meglio, Jordana Greenberg, and Chris Burgess. Photo by Hudson’s Photography.

Of all the indie bands No Surf has come across in its brief existence, one of the most unique, talented, and simply fun has to be Nashville-based string folk quartet Harpeth Rising. With a sound sui generis relying on the odd combination of violin, banjo, cello and percussion along with a mixture of classical and traditional sensibilities, they break new ground virtually every time they pick up their instruments, forging their own path as the vanguard of a new species of progressive folk.

Last year, the band garnered a Song of the Year Surfy for “Truck Stop Mama” and very nearly beat out No Surf Friends David Wax Museum for Album of the Year with their third release The End of the World. While I have waxed ecstatic about the merits of that album since the moment I first heard it, much of the highest praise was heaped upon the band’s collaborator David Greenberg, father of violinist/vocalist Jordana Greenberg. David wrote the lyrics for every song on the album as well as providing guitar and lead vocals on half the tracks and demonstrated that despite his obscurity as a lyricist he belongs in the same rarified class as legends like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. While it’s undeniable that the impressive musical talents of all four members of Harpeth Rising contributed to the quality of the work, I have to admit trepidation regarding the group’s future endeavors. Their first two albums included a number of the elements that made The End of the World so captivating, yet like a cake with a mixture just slightly off never quite seemed to rise. This left me wondering whether their fourth release would maintain such incredibly high quality or would—without the elder Greenberg’s direct participation—simply be a pale ghost of past greatness.

Those concerns were alleviated only a few moments into my first listen of Tales From Jackson Bridge, the new album named not just to imply its role as an anthology but as a reference to Jordana’s Bowling Green home where much of it was written. This is a particularly appropriate tribute as her growth as a songwriter is apparent almost from the first notes. While her lyrics on previous endeavors never quite matched up to the mock-orchestral musicianship displayed by the classically trained Harpeth Rising crew, the pointed wordscapes she paints throughout Jackson Bridge make every note sparkle all the more and mark her as a lyricist to watch in her own right. Combined with several selections penned by David Greenberg and one by banjoist Rebecca Reed-Lunn, it makes for a collection of lyrics that perfectly match the quality of the accompaniment. Even there the band has made great strides since their earlier works, demonstrating that the End of the World experience honed their musical skills, as well. Jordana’s melodies are more intriguing than ever and the band’s arrangements more mature and well suited to the emotional climates they’re meant to create. In short, Tales from Jackson Bridge stands up in every way to the high quality of Harpeth Rising’s previous album, and even surpasses it at times, a stunning achievement considering just how impressive that collection was.

Opening with the naked sawing of Greenberg’s violin before breaking into a light, syncopated rhythm punctuated by flowing vocal verses and tightly harmonized choruses, the first track, “Wheelhouse,” is a character study of somebody who appears to be the exact constitutional opposite of its author. Whereas Jordana exudes a sense of openness and joie de vivre—if not actual innocence—her rakish raconteur is a spiteful, petty, vicious conniver.

“The narrator is sort of the anti-hero,” Greenberg says, “someone who is standing up for herself after a long time of doing what she's told. She's taking control and making her own decisions… or is she? How can we ever know if we're doing something based on our own convictions or if our sense of morality is a result of what we've been taught?”

If it’s a question of nature vs. nurture, Jordana comes down heavily on the side of the latter, as the narrator’s personality traits are laid right at the feet of a mother figure, an elder tutor of the darker side of life:

Here the band demonstrates their deep love of South Park by exemplifying Eric Cartman's first principal of band photography: "Look away to the right… So it looks like you're too cool to care that you're on an album cover, you black asshole!" Ok, maybe not that last bit, but you get the idea. Photo by Hudson's Photography.

You said you were a woman of circumstance
And you couldn’t help where you came from.
Your fate was determined far in advance.
Your only choice was to become
The one who does or the one who is done to
And you made your decision that day.
And I think you for the lessons and your point of view;
You’re the reason for who I am today.

Well you’re in my wheelhouse now,
Under my command.
In my wheelhouse now
And this ship ain’t headed for land.

Despite the caustic thank you, it’s obvious that the narrator saves her greatest dose of spite for her mentor, questioning the ultimate validity of the lessons she was taught and plotting her corruptor’s downfall, thus turning the entire piece into something of a redemption song with a bit of light shining in at the edge of the storm clouds. The dual meaning of the wheelhouse metaphor—relying on both the idiom implying an area of expertise and the implication of control—is a notably intriguing little device, but it’s important to remember what happens to the captain when the ship goes down.

“Perhaps she can still turn things around,” Jordana quips. “Or maybe this was the only possibility all along.”

The next track, “Day After Day,” also features a character very much unlike the author. The members of Harpeth Rising strike me as a very resilient, self-sufficient bunch who don’t wait for opportunity but chase it down, grab it by the throat, and refuse to let go. Hell, not only are they fighting for scraps in the tumultuous world of independent music, but when they decided to veer from their classical training, they basically invented their own sub-genre in order to make it happen. The centerpiece of this song, however—while certainly resilient in her own way—is the waiting type, someone who has been kept down by the circumstances of her life and dreams with infinite resignation of some sort of escape, all apparently while living in an alcoholic haze of religious fervor.

“Growing up in a small town in Southern Indiana, I met a lot of people whose stories mirror this one,” Jordana explains, “Although it may seem like an unattractive character, one of things that you see in these towns is an unbreakable family bond. The girl in this story may have had the same opportunities to leave as the people around her, but that would mean leaving her father behind. For a lot of the people I've known, their families can't or refuse to understand why they would want something different from their lives. A lot of the time people in rural communities choose to remain with their families, even if that means living the same provincial life they have for generations. They pray, they drink; they get the same answers. Ultimately they have to decide what they want from their lives, perhaps without the assistance of God or alcohol.”

The story is set against a spritely musical backdrop with beat kept by shakers and choruses replete with the band’s signature vocal harmonies. The highlight, in fact, is the final repetition, an a cappella iteration that really highlights all four parts and demonstrates that the band’s instrumental prowess is far from their only pool of musical talent.

With its sparse jazz club style, “Burn Away Your Troubles” stands in stark contrast to the band’s usual full sound. Jordana’s slinky, consonant voice seems to be that of a sultry succubus speaking with a serpent’s tongue and cloaked in a bright red dress slit up the side all the way to the promised land. It fails to strike quite as hard as some of its counterpart, but entertains nonetheless.

In keeping with his prevalent lyrical style, the first song on the album penned by David Greenberg, “The Sparrow,” is more heavily symbolic and literarily layered than those than come before it. The music, though sparse—even desolate—also has an added dramatic, almost operatic quality, with particularly weighty vocals and flowing bow strokes that seem to pull the notes on for days. Along with the sheer length of the lyrical composition, this makes it perhaps the album’s most epic piece. The themes are similar to those Greenberg often explores, the larger relationship of the individual to his fellow humans, his place and role within society, spirituality in a world where god appears to be—at best—dead, the source and worthiness of knowledge, and the meaning of life and ultimate judgment of its worth. Yeah, this guy’s not exactly one to write goofy love ditties. All of these themes are explored to one extent or another throughout the verses, each of which presents a vignette of a different group of characters. A particular favorite has to be:

I saw the prisoner chained with hate, unto the gallows bound
And all of us we walked on by and uttered not a sound
And the earth received him perfectly, her arms wrapped all around
And now we live by night and curse the darkness.

In stark contrast to the elder Greenberg’s dark contemplation, Reed-Lund’s “You Won’t Hear It From Me” is a cheerful sounding piece full of fleet-footed string plucking, rat-a-tat percussion and even a bit of whistling. It’s less of a love song than an ode to the perils of dating. Shit, dude, the girl just wants you to say, “I love you.” Take Robbie Fulks’ advice and tell her lies. She’ll put out, I promise.

“Four Days More” is not just the best song on the album but exponentially the best composition of Jordana’s career. Far more martial than one might expect of this group, it is filled with march-step snares and dramatic vocals that build ever more tension as they near the confrontational climax. The song is based upon a stark warning, an ever-dwindling countdown that seems like it could have come as a proclamation by William Tecumseh Sherman to the next town between his army and the sea:

Four days more ‘til we march upon this city.
You have four more days to turn this train around.
Four days more ‘til we knock upon your armored doors.
Four days more ‘til we tread onto your hallowed ground.

The tension builds as the number steadily shrinks, while meanwhile the verses make a series of political indictments worthy of Jefferson's Declaration. Yet for all the war-like threats, the final verse makes it clear that the imminently threatening footfalls belong to those armed not with weapons of destruction, but ideas of synthesis. The piece ends on the final day with a glorious chorus that adds to the depth of the piece and mirrors the many voices of any such civic bravura.

“This song was a bit self-exploratory for me,” Greenberg says. “I wrote it after hearing an NPR segment in which they were interviewing individual protestors from a variety of movements, and I began to wonder what my own response would be, if it would be peaceful or violent. Despite being a generally socially-left-to-the-point-of-absurdity vegetarian hippie, I think I might also be an anarchist, so through writing this song, I actually discovered that I believe a certain type of strong, passionate pacifism is more effective in certain circumstances than anything else. I'm not saying that I wouldn't defend myself if I needed to, but I do believe that personal integrity is among the most important things in the universe, and that we need to express ourselves without becoming our enemy.”

As opposed to his previous more somber mode of reflection, “It Don’t Really Matter” shows the elder Greenberg’s lighter side, with political commentary in the Charlie Chaplin slapstick tradition. Especially pleasing is that its main conceit focuses on one of my favorite topics, the dissembling of those hypocrites over at Walmart and their unerring determination to destroy both the livelihoods and the soul of America.

David just presents it in a more comical light:

Just by the look of them, I would say it's unlikely that any of these four people do much shopping at Walmart. But who knows? Stranger things have happened. Photo by Hudson's Photography.

I went down to Walmart where the Wally Martians are.
She asked me what my name was; did I have a super savings card.
Said, “I’m just payin’ cash for this here pack of cigarettes.”
She called her supervisor; I was placed under arrest.
They took me to the parking lot; said it wasn’t funny.
I was charged with failing to fall in line behind the economy.

It don’t really matter how the zebra got them stripes,
But tell me is he white on black or is he black on white?

Attention wonder shoppers, we know you really can’t believe
It smells like tango butter and it slides like axel grease.
Don’t go home without it; you will never be the same.
Genuine artificial imitation is the name of the game.
They caught me down in hardware, tryin’ to find a screw.
They gave me toilet paper; it was the best that they could do.

It don’t really matter why the monkey makes that face.
I think he’s really laughin’ ‘cause he lost the human race.

Putting aside the question of whether Greenberg is really searching for fasteners or trying to pick up a date, how exactly the word “funny” could somehow rhyme with “eh-coh-nahm-ee,” or even how the Noah’s Ark passenger manifest somehow made its way into political commentary, it’s not only a 99%er’s anthem equal to anything lately penned by Todd Snider or Steve Earle, but a buoyant, hilarious romp a whole heap better for entertainment value.

The song “Goin’ My Way,” as sung by David Greenberg, led off The End of the World, and as the update presented here involves essentially a change in arrangement, I’ll refer you to the No Surf Review of that album for comments on its merits. The new version is faster paced with less of the spooky sense of foreboding brought out by the elder Greenberg’s voice and the younger’s violin, with an inherent lightness owing to Jordana’s higher-pitched—if intentionally strained—vocals. As for why the band chose to take another crack at the song here, Jordana explains, “We performed this all the time and our live version was pretty different. We liked it, the audience liked it, and we also thought it would be fun to show how songs sometimes change pretty drastically over time.”

The final track, “Ghost Factory,” is the album’s most sedate. A collaboration between the two Greenbergs, it has a particularly empty, forsaken feeling, as its hollow characters pass yet another hollow day, tramp down hollow streets into the hollow night, contemplate the echoing loneliness of their hollow lives, and wait to arrive at their final destination at the bottom of a hollow grave. It ends on a strange anti-climax, musically more full than the rest of the song but not seeming at all like a conclusion, rather appropriate within its own rubric since it closes by asking a question that no man still living could ever hope to answer:

While not exactly historically accurate, this attire actually symbolizes the band's blend of classic, traditional and modern (not to mention sexy and campy) quite well. If you're looking for well written, well played music that's not quite like anything you've previously heard, Harpeth Rising is a fine choice. Photo by Hudson's Photography.

Down along the highway in the headlights,
Searching out the journeys of the night.
One of them is for me and I’m waiting.
And when my travelin’s done and I am laying
In the arms of time just waiting out the day
Will I dream of going or of staying
When I sail away?

The collection is rounded out by two instrumentals. The original “Eris” starts demurely before charging into a kinetic center section, then calms again before one final explosion. While elements of traditional music pervade the piece, it seems to owe more than usual to the group’s classical background, particularly in its expressive violin lines, thus serving as an interesting demonstration of just how much of the band’s folk style relies on their lyrical themes. The traditional “House of the Rising Sun,” which the group has performed on stage for much of their career, seems an interesting choice for an instrumental, but is executed in such a way that the wistful tones of Jordana’s violin convey the sorrowful condition of the song’s erstwhile confessor more compellingly than the human voice could ever manage.

Tales From Jackson Bridge is a certifiable triumph for Harpeth Rising. While it doesn’t quite match up to the near-perfect consistency of their prior release, dipping somewhat in the middle and finishing off on a note that is perhaps just a bit too poetic for its own good, it demonstrates that the band can indeed reach the heights of greatness without relying solely on the lyrical talents of David Greenberg. While he did again pen several of the album’s best compositions, the real star here is Jordana, who with tracks like “Wheelhouse” and “Four Days More” manifests her own songwriting talents to an extent hitherto unseen. Furthermore, the entire band demonstrates a maturity of sound that proves they have found the sweet spot in their unparalleled blend of classic instrumentation and folk traditions, and that they are very capable of creating such compelling music for many years to come. But don’t wait, because if you have yet to discover the lively, intelligent work of Harpeth Rising, Tales From Jackson Bridge offers the perfect opportunity.



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