I had some bad cabin fever this past March. The snow and cold had me on lockdown. In lieu of an actual outing I popped in “Sparrows in the Bell,” the Red House Records debut by The Pines. This offered a contemplative virtual walk down often dark passages, but it was a refreshing journey all the same.
The Pines are a two-man show. David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey are both Iowa natives, with strong ties to the Hawkeye state, but live and record in Minneapolis. They are a pair of modern day guitar troubadours, combining roots blues and indie-rock styles to create their own haunting sound.
Listeners get a sense The Pines possess a depth of folk and blues heritage that belies their age. Ramsey is the son of Bo Ramsey, Greg Brown’s longtime producer and guitarist. He is steeped in the craft of traditional music and Huckfelt shares a similar appreciation, which together allows The Pines to evoke a raw, ancient sound intertwined with current day indie beats.
Listening to “Sparrows in the Bell” is reminiscent of walking into a room you know well but finding everything has been rearranged.
This type of arrangement could produce a sparse sound, and it is stark, but there is an underlying fullness to this recording that leaves a listener satisfied. The songwriting duties are shared by The Pines, as are the lead vocals. Ramsey’s raspy delivery is complemented by Huckfelt’s more tuneful approach, which also serves to layer the delivery of these tracks between darkness and light.
The Pines are joined on this recording by several of their Minneapolis friends: bassist Chris Morrissey, drummer J.T. Bates, singer JoAnna James and Ramsey’s brother, Alex, on keyboards and piano. Their father Bo shares producing duties with The Pines and adds some sharp electric guitar work to several of the tracks.
Each song is a well crafted story that offers a glimpse into an intimate moment or emotion.
In “Horse and Buggy” a listener may accompany Ramsey on his moonlit walk to ponder the myth of freedom in a world gone wrong. The addition of Michael Rossetto’s banjo underneath the guitars is a welcomed touch.
On the guitar driven “Don’t Let Me Go” there is a desperation for companionship that is precluded by the singer’s own alienation. The wincing guitar at the end of each verse lets you know all is not well.
Ramsey sings, “I’m going to pretend this is heaven, you know just in case I get up to the gates and they don’t recognize my face.” This creates a David Lynch type atmosphere of loss and wonderment.
“Let’s Go” offers a rollicking take on dreams lost and a turn toward abandon. This is a good push song to transition the listener into the second half of the disc. A sentiment of salvation is offered by Huckfelt on “Circle Around The Sun,” but a contemporary take on the traditional “Careless Love” guarantees no one is going to escape this somber scene.
These are highly personal recordings. I can’t recommend enough listening to “Sparrows in the Bell” through headphones to appreciate the subtlety found in both these vocalists. These are visual stories and the voice is purposely placed up front in the mixes to embrace the listener.
Although the subject matter may primarily concern tragedy, the clever lyrics display a sophistication that gives The Pines a ragged glory. By the time you reach the concluding “Goin’ Home” there is a triumph of survival that makes you want to return to your own hometown and see old friends. So the next time the walls are closing in, give The Pines a spin, they may just open up some doors long forgotten.
The run time for “Sparrows in the Bell” is 38:51.