Acoustic Syndicate is back with its first album in nearly a decade. Rooftop Garden is set for release on Tuesday, Sept. 3
But, despite the time lapsed since 2004’s Long Way Round, this new song collection is neither rusty or dusty. From its first notes, the album is unexpected. “Heroes” launches with electronics and a dance beat.
Don’t worry, Syndicate fans. The Fallston, N.C.-based band has not gone electro-pop. This is still an Americana album, but it’s one that stretches and reaches, enhancing the band’s considerable musicianship and songwriting chops with technology (Moog pedals, Moog lap steel, electric Dobro). “To dream of diamonds, only to wake in their dust” is a line from that initial track. It’s Bryon McMurry, usually content to man the banjo and background vocals, who sings lead — another surprise. And a happy one. But when it comes to vocals, front man and guitarist Steve McMurry’s voice is as solid as ever, all refined growl and comforting rasp.
The rest of the band (Bryon also plays electric guitar; Fitz McMurry on drums and vocals; Jay Sanders on bass and pedals and Billy Cardine on Dobro and lap steel) are as consistent and downright good as ever, but instead of going through the motions (they certainly could phone it in at this point), each note seems energized and crisp with possibility. This is a band that is still astonished by its own potential, still examining its sound from all angles and finding new in-roads to their own well-mapped territory.
On the funky, soulful second track, Bryon sings, “I suspect that everyone in everyone in every land in this life is coming in from the cold.” It’s a song that must have been inspired by Bob Marley’s “Coming in From the Cold” (same title, even).
“Forward” is driving, blood-pumping and wide-open. The band’s harmonies are tight and, even as the instrumentation builds, the recording is so clear that the rhythmic plunk of the banjo shares space with the squeal of fingers over acoustic guitar frets.
Slower, more heart-felt “Hourglass” (a meditation on time passing) is balanced with the jaunty, rootsy “Memphis Girls.”
“Bicycle Song” opens with hand drums and, until the electric guitar comes in, it could be a world-beat song. But even with its rock base, it’s a buoyant track. Jazz influences and syncopation (and some jaw-dropping finger-picking) burble below the surface while Bryon’s vocal, though not expressly lithe, rises above. That, and the song paints this beautiful picture of one of life’s simple pleasures: riding a bike, feeling rain drops and friendship and the heady rush of freedom.
Photo by Lynne Harty Photography
Notes on the album say that the songs were written “with a essential positive message, one about humanity, earth, responsibility and peace.” Final track “Beside Me,” a bluesy, rocking number recalls the Allman Brothers with its guitar and keys parts. “If there ever was a time to come together, the time is now, before we’re lost forever,” Steve sings.
The title track borrows from Southern rock, too. And from ‘60s rock acts like Buffalo Springfield. And there’s some jam in there, too (it’s definitely the sort of song a band could extend in a live performance). Its themes of environmentalism and, by extension, patriotism are dovetailed in the chorus, “No one walks away, never leave it untended. We still are the free red white and blue.” The verses are a tight network of heavy bass, striking guitars and stomping drums that give way to softer, melodic breaks. The song is as smart and complex as the well-seasoned band. And while it’s the message they no doubt had in mind when choosing it for the album title, the composition in and of itself says plenty.