The Rails are as much of a supergroup as you could possibly want, on every front. With withering contempt for speculators and the plague of gentrification that continues to decimate urban areas throughout the western world and beyond, this band jangle and clang with the kind of purist tunefulness you would expect considering their pedigree. The sonics are luscious beyond belief: guitarist James Walbourne’s attack ranges from gentle acoustic filigrees to electric slings and arrows punctuated by equal parts scream and slither.
The core of the group also includes Walbourne’s singer wife Kami Thompson (daughter of Linda and Richard Thompson) with Son Volt’s Jim Boquist on bass and the North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson on drums. Their album Other People – as in “There are other people in this world, not just you” – is streaming at Spotify. They’re playing the Mercury on July 25 at 7 PM. Cover is $20; if smart, fearlessly relevant songwriting is your thing, don’t miss them.
The album opens with the bitter, brooding ballad The Cally, a slowly unwinding, imagistic tale of a seedy bar under siege amid wretched real estate bubble excess. Walbourne muses about how refreshing it is to see a prostitute still out there, typical of the crushing irony in many of these songs.
Thompson sings the tensely pulsing breakup anthem Late Surrender, bubbling over with Walbourne’s spiky, lingering Strat work, up to a tantalizingly brief solo out. With her resolute, low-key vocals, the album’s title track is as apt a smack upside the head of yuppie narcissists as anyone’s written this year:
Take the candy
Steal the money
Pull the blind down
Kick the dog
Walbourne seethes and grits his teeth through the slowly waltzing Drowned In Blue, Thompson just slightly more restrained over the lushly textured, watery guitars and stinging steel. The guitar multitracks are just as rich but more spare and acoustic in Hanging On, which works just as well as a requiem for a relationship as for a burnt-out freedom fighter.
For a minute it seems like Walbourne’s narrator in Dark Times got a raw deal with the richkid cokehead girlfriend, but there’s more to the story – and a delicious Farfisa organ break that gives way to a typically searing guitar solo. Shame, a drunkard’s lament, has a more upbeat Britfolk feel.
Thompson’s voice rises plaintively in Leaving the Land, a wounded, defeatedly waltzing ballad with a cynically roaring Celtic dance midway through. It sets up the album’s big bombshell, Brick and Mortar, which might be the best song of 2018. Over a savage minor-key strut, Walbourne paints a grim picture of one historic district after another being destroyed as working people get displaced:
I can’t hear the beat on Denmark Street
Silenced by the sound of mute concrete
And it’s never coming back
Just another luxury flat
It’s farewell to all of London’s brick and mortar
“Why does evil taste so sweet? Leads you down a dead-end street,” Thompson muses to complete the trilogy in yet another pensive waltz, Mansion of Happiness, set to Walbourne’s black widow web of guitars and mandolin. The group stay in 3/4 time throughout Australia, a mutedly cynical would-be escape tale, then add a fourth beat to the measure in the stark, doomed, Everly Brothers-tinged I Wish, I Wish.
Willow Tree is an unexpectedly successful detour toward oldschool American C&W. The album winds up with the aching Low Expectations: “There must be something more than this,” Walbourne broods. He’s done plenty of memorable lead guitar work with the Pretenders and Ray Davies but this is his masterpiece so far. And it’s also a high-water mark for Thompson as standard bearer of a mighty songwriting legacy.