It’s a curious thing when musicians take a busman’s holiday and step away from their main gig to join up with players and singers from other bands to experiment with a previously untried collaboration. Golden Smog was a loose affiliation that included members of Wilco, Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Replacements and others, producing four albums when it suited them, and of course there’s the supergroup of all supergroups, The Traveling Wilburys. The Ascendents are a collection of long-time Nashville musicians and friends who have taken a break from their main source of creativity and income to make some music together as, The Fellowship of the Broken.
Phil Madeira has been in Emmylou Harris’ band, the Red Dirt Boys, for fifteen years, a multi-instrumentalist who moves easily from organ, piano, and accordion to guitars and drums, or whatever else might be required; he’s recorded with RDB and produced a steady flow of solo recordings, performing everything from singer/songwriter Americana to piano-based jazz and R&B. Matt Slocum was the guitarist and cellist, as well as songwriter in Sixpence None the Richer, which had a huge hit with the single, “Kiss Me,” a song that felt omnipresent in the late 90’s. Early this year, it was announced that Slocum and the Sixpence vocalist Leigh Nash were joining up with the remaining members of the 10,000 Maniacs. Steve Hindalong is a songwriter and drummer in the band, The Choir, and has worked with The Lost Dogs and as a producer on numerous projects. Jimmy Abegg has had a long career playing in the band Vector and playing guitar for artist and producer Charlie Peacock, as well as the occasional solo music project alongside his visual arts works as a painter and designer. Ben Pearson is best known as a photographer and cinematographer, but here he joins in as a songwriter and singer.
As the Ascendents, these diverse players appear to have parked their egos at the door, as the over-riding feeling running through the disc’s 11 tracks is a musical playfulness and genuine comradery. Bright, polished pop/rock hooks abound, embellished by bold, fun guitars, rich vocal harmonies and a spirited approach to creative songcraft. Some of the obvious highlights find them pulling out the stops on the album’s fun rockers. “Rocket Ship Jesus” takes offense at all the “hucksters on this Jesus train,” but leaving lost souls unsure how to pray, but the bold, fun guitars seem to have found a way. There’s a fun vocal call & response in “Just Enough Love,” but then the mild funky coda is full of instrumental promise if this band ever takes these songs to the stage. “Original Girl” and “Live It Out” feels like they could come from the Tom Petty songbook, with fun organ swells that recall the work of Benmont Tench in the first one, while the second has a killer shout it out vocal hook and some smart guitar work.
“Lonely Planet” features a lush bed of warm vocal harmonies, and the guitars ring out like a Joe Walsh solo in an Eagles concoction. The album’s title track turns to Slocum’s cellist skills mixed with Madeira’s mellotron produced strings and horns, which works nicely if you don’t get too distracted by the banjo and harmonica, and a melodic similarity to a song that might have been performed by The Muppets. On the other hand, there’s an authentic Celtic march vibe in “Make the Dead Speak Well of You” that quickly washes that saccharin taste from your mouth.
Most of the tracks here speak of love and the pursuit of light, whether it shines out like “Diamonds,” which is shaped around a fun musical tension that dissolves nicely into a fun jam, or the gentle reflection of “Starlight” or the quiet acoustic ballad for “Alice at the Atlantic.” Throughout the album’s 10 tracks, these seasoned players take turns singing lead, swapping guitar solos, seemingly egging each other on to bolder and better performances, leading to an album that proves to be an enjoyable listen as these recognizable talents blend their skills to shape something new and quite different from any of their independent bands. It’s an outing sure to pull in fans of these artists and some who appreciate a solid songwriting, performed with spirit and musical polish.
“Just Enough Love” / “Original Girl” / “Rocketship Jesus”
ARTISTS WITH SIMILAR FIRE
The Eagles / Tom Petty / Crosby, Stills & Nash
THE ASCENDENTS LINKS