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Steve Pick (88.1, KDHX) on Falling Fences

Ask Joe Stickley a question, and you can see the wheels moving behind his eyes. He might say something right away, but his brain is working on the problem, finding the connection between thoughts, figuring out exactly what he means to say about the music he writes, plays, and sings. If there’s a beer, he’ll take a sip, get that extra moment to reach the destination he didn’t know he sought.

“There’s the sea shanty aspect of some of the songs,” Stickley says when probed about the inspiration for the new album from Falling Fences, his newly named but long-lived musical trio. “I think it’s because I’ve been reading Moby Dick. In the beginning he (Herman Melville) is saying, Who has not dreamt or imagined themselves or wanted to go to sea? When I read that, I went, yeah, I want to go to sea, and I bet that all my friends would, too.”

Well, maybe, but Stickley’s songs don’t always make life on a body of water sound perfectly comfortable. Devils pursue his protagonists, or they pursue devils, and there are constant dreams of what remains waiting at home, or what was lost and required escape. Falling Fences, the album, has 12 songs, all but one of which were written in whole or in part by the frontman, and all but one of his own containing at least one reference to the ocean, a river, or a lake.

It’s not always Herman Melville that Stickley evokes, though, as much as a sometime contemporary, Mark Twain. That’s because while Stickley loves the metaphorical imagery that permeates Melville, it’s Twain’s vernacular and ability to hone things down to their essence that is most obvious here. Joe Stickley is a straight-shooting storyteller with a great ear for the way words sound in a song and the emphasis those sounds can give to the meaning.

“Watching good films, or reading good books, you’re inspired,” Stickley says. “You have a feeling. It’s trying to capture that feeling with a song, lyrically, melodically, rhythmically or whatever. You’ll never be able to do that how you set out to do it, but you’ll come close. Once you try, all of a sudden you’re writing a song that you didn’t plan on writing that way at all.”

It’s that combination of lyric, melody, and rhythm that sets the music of Falling Fences apart. Born of a long-time residence Sunday nights at John D. McGurk’s, the trio of Stickley, Sean Canan (on guitar and other stringed instruments), and Ryan Kennedy (bass) have developed a personalized approach to music which incorporates Irish folk (because that’s what you hear at McGurk’s), bluegrass, pop/rock, and a little bit of old-timey seasoning. Mostly, though, the songs draw attention to themselves more than the influences, as the band name becomes appropriate as fences between genres have been gently pushed to the ground.

For the album, and in larger live venues, Falling Fences expands to include Joe Winze on drums, and occasional additions on trumpet (Alex Baisch), fiddle (Michael Schembre or Molly Healey), keyboards (Andrew Weir), and even on one memorable occasion, musical saw (Wil Reeves). Canan plays acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, dobro, and banjo, thus ensuring that each song is given the individual treatment it deserves. The sound is tightly drawn yet expansive, driving rhythmically with a feel of loping motion, joyfully expressive with melancholic underpinnings. You can’t sit on Falling Fences.

“My history in making records has been often and certainly in this case, let’s make a record that sounds like us,” Stickley says. “At the end of the day, once you’re in there spending money making a record, we want it to sound like us, but we want to make the best record possible. And if a song is gonna sound better with an organ pad on it, then that’s what we’re gonna do. The goal at the beginning was probably more to make a record that was just the three of us. We might have been torn for a little bit when we started to add things, but we wanted to make it sound as good as possible.”

Joe Stickley has released five previous recordings in the past, three under the name Joe Stickley’s Blue Print, one with Canan as the duo Stickley and Canan, and one solo release under his own name. Falling Fences is both a new start and a continuation of his previous work. Three of the songs on the new record were released before in strikingly different arrangements. “It is extremely collaborative as far as arranging songs,” Stickley says. “And even tempos, too. Sean might say how about we speed it up. I would say I’m the brainchild for them musically and lyrically, but it’s certainly a collaborative effort.”

While the Falling Fences album is a gem from start to finish, the opening cut, “Shot to the Devil,” is likely to attract the most attention. That’s because there really aren’t that many 7-minute acoustic folk-based songs with this much attention to melodic and lyrical detail which don’t stretch out time via jam-band improvisation. As always, the music is focused and precisely crafted. Opening with a pace suitable for a jig, the song slows down twice to a dirge pace, before shifting into an entirely different melody on the back end. The devil is fought and a girl is lost across time and space (and two songs later, is recalled again as we learn the ship and the girl have the same name). And the band smokes hard along the way.

“I think we view it as three sections. Another way we look at it is two songs,” says Stickley. “There’s the main fast “Shot to the Devil” and the end, which is “I Don’t Wanna Lose”, which sounds like a different band and a different feel. But you also have those bridges in there. I don’t know exactly what happened. I had the first part of the song, and I liked the idea of the slow bridge repeating twice. So I had that song, but I had this other song, “I Don’t Wanna Lose,” also in the key of F, and I thought we could go into that song after this song live, because we really play in pairs. That makes the set flow, and we never have to write a set list. So we just sort of tagged that on there, and then we’ll go back to the fast bluegrass feel. It was pretty organic. We didn’t set out to write a 7 minute song. I don’t think I”ve ever done that. But it felt right. It might be border line too much, but we’re okay with it.”

The album closes with a cover from the pen of John Hartford, who loved rivers and travel songs at least as much as Stickley does. This brings a lovely meta-circular touch to the record, as “Shot to the Devil” includes a lyrical reference to Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.” I probably should have asked Joe about that one. I wonder if he made the connection on purpose, or if that would be one he’d conjure an explanation for between sips of that beer.

- Steve Pick, host of Sound Salvation on 88.1 KDHX