Friday, April 16, 2021

Roof Beams: “This Life Must Be Long” (2020) Vinyl Review

Roof Beams is a folk-rock band based in Washington, D.C., led by Nathan Robinson, who wrote all the material on the latest album, This Life Must Be Long. Nathan Robinson provides the lead vocals, and plays acoustic guitar, harmonica, melodica, keyboards and percussion. His band mates on this release are Bill Smyth on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, pedal steel, bass, keyboards and percussion; and Phillips Saylor Wisor on electric guitar, banjo, mandolin and vocals. And they create a deliciously raw and true sound. The band’s name comes from J.D. Salinger’s Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters, a novella that is paired with Seymour: An Introduction, following members of the Glass family, first written about in what is one of the world’s absolute best short stories, “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” (Seriously, if you haven’t read that story, I strongly urge you to pick up a copy of Nine Stories. Also, it is a fun story to read aloud.) Anyway, if you are going to call to mind a literary figure as revered as J.D. Salinger, then you’d better have the lyrical content and ability to back it up. Well, this band certainly does. This Life Must Be Long follows 2017’s Charon.

Side A

One of my favorite movies is Magnolia, and one of its most arresting scenes is the one in which Jason Robards talks about regret. At one point he says, “Life ain’t short, it’s long.” For me, there are constant reminders of the brevity of life, and for that reason that line stands out, as I try to understand it, to look at life differently. Roof Beams open their new album with its title track, “This Life Must Be Long,” a song with rather pretty and unpolished folk sound. And if you’re looking for some good, original lyrics, here is a taste from this opening track: “Where was she when I was sad and young, mad at some man I hadn’t become//What is this one life that I live? This drug I skip? This love I give?” This track also features some good work on harmonica toward the end. And it ends with the lines, “This life must be long/This life must be long/This life must be long/This life must be long/Stop me if I’m…” It’s interesting that the final word, which we all assume is “wrong,” is left out. Is the idea that he is wrong, and has been stopped? Perhaps. That is followed by “Outer Rings,” and the presence of mandolin gives this one a more cheerful vibe from the start. There is, in contrast, a weariness to the vocal delivery, an ache. And I like that he asks “Everyone’s chosen one of two sides/I’ve got mine, but is it right?” The question is repeated, which perhaps makes up for the many people out there who never ask the question, though have clearly chosen a side. One thing I love about this band is that they seem to be asking questions rather than pretending to have answers, and in doing that, I think they forge a stronger connection to us.

Okay, maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces, but the opening line of “Buckle” makes me laugh out loud: “Every single one of our vices circling each other like Pisces.” I love the honest humor to this song, which catches me by surprise. The phrase “dream up the perfect on-stage banter” also stands out for me, as rehearsed stage banter is something that has always turned me off. The first side of the record concludes with “Carry On,” which has an interesting sound. The core might be folk, but there are other elements at play here, with sounds from electronic pop. And check out these lines: “They were never right, but they made the wrong things sound fun/They were never right, but then neither is anyone.” Actually, a lot of lyrics stand out, particularly these lines: “God’s been cruel and so have I” and “I’ve been screening calls from people I care about/I just couldn’t answer them. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.” Perfect lines for these strange days when we all feel somewhat unmoored.

Side B

This band knows how to connect to us at our most confused and human levels. I’ve always believed that no one knows anything, that all of us are flailing about in the wind, trying to keep from getting too hurt or coming across as too stupid, and this band seems in touch with that sense, especially in a song like “Awareness,” one of my personal favorites on this record. I love these lines: “I know someday I’ll be a better man/Until then, please put up with me the best you can.” That’s followed by “Clean Break,” an interesting and unusual track that reaches into biblical times, even guessing the perspective of Lazarus: “If I were Lazarus, stumbling out of the cave/I wouldn’t be grateful, I’d probably say that Jesus was a friend of mine. But now here I stand, his decaying punchline.”  There is a wonderful humor to this song, yet it has something important to say: “For God’s sake, think about somebody else/Try to feel just how they felt/I promise you, you won’t break,” the lines the song leaves us with.

Earlier I mentioned how I love that this band asks questions. Well, the lyrics to “Witness Me” are almost entirely questions. This is a song that reaches out, a song of need and vulnerability. “Will you witness me, will you witness me?/Will you spare me the shame of asking and witness me?” And it features some nice work on both harmonica and pedal steel, giving it the feel of longing, contrasting with the mandolin. As with the first side, the second side concludes with a track that utilizes elements far outside of folk, this one with electronic sounds and a steady, mechanical-type beat. Titled “My Business,” it has some interesting pauses and breaths too. And, as with all of this band’s songs, it features some really good lyrics. “It’s breaking up the capillaries under my skin/It feels good for an hour, so I’ll do it again/I’m tired all the time/When I’m alone, I just lose my mind.” Those last two lines certainly speak to us in this crazy time of isolation amid a pandemic. I hope we’ll meet on the other side of this craziness soon. At the end of the song, the voice seems to come from some other plane. “There is no other way through this.”

Record Track List

Side A

  1. This Life Must Be Long
  2. Outer Rings
  3. Buckle
  4. Carry On

Side B

  1. Awareness
  2. Clean Break
  3. Witness Me
  4. My Business

This Life Must Be Long was released on December 4, 2020.

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