In Brief: An astounding comeback given the almost 13 years of silence that preceded it. It’s like Burlap to Cashmere never even missed a beat.
It’s hard to put into words the excitement I feel when a band I love that has been dormant for the better part of a decade finally regroups for a new album. In the case of Burlap to Cashmere, the quirky folk/rock act with their catchy song about the B.I.B.L.E. and the Greek/Latin flair worn heartily on their sleeves, this wait was most agonizing. Fans of their one and only studio album Anybody Out There?, waiting since the turn of the century for a follow-up would occasionally hear news of a reunion, only for it to be a false start, maybe a few scattered shows or a collaboration with another artist, but nothing approaching a full-fledged album or tour until circa 2010. The weathered but wide-eyed voice of Steven Delopoulos offered solace on a fine pair of solo albums, but deep down inside, there was a part of us who missed the audacious acoustic guitar wizardry of his cousin Johnny Phillippidis and the otherworldly, celebratory atmosphere that the rest of the band often brought to the proceedings. This was a band that had been poised to hit the bigtime right before they fell off the face of the Earth, with their songwriting reaching for creative heights beyond the confines of what your usual “Christian bands” delivered, and their live show often upstaging much bigger acts that they were opening for. Just what happened to these guys, anyway?
As it turns out, the group’s long hiatus was partly due to burnout, and partly due to a band member literally hanging on the brink of death. Being suddenly thrust into the spotlight in the late 90’s and trotted out on a few tours with some of CCM’s finest ultimately didn’t seem to suit the band’s style, and when that all wound down, they sort of parted ways and never quite got around to regrouping, aside from Steven and Johnny playing the odd show together as a stripped-down incarnation of the band. Then the unthinkable happened in 2005, when Johnny was beaten within an inch of his life in a freak road rage incident. The road to recovery was slow and uncertain, but in some ways, it was the catalyst for a renewed lease on life, a chance to get a few of the guys back together and see how everyone had changed as an artist and as an individual in the interim. With drummer Theodore Pagano back in the fold, the three eventually picked up a new guitarist and bass player and began to hone their new material. With renonwned indie producer Mitchell Froom at the helm, the band entered 2011 with a comeback on the horizon, a chance to prove they could appeal well beyond the niche of Christian music. Unlike a lot of overhyped comebacks from bands whose glory days are finally beyond it, I think I can safely say that this is one of the few that hasn’t let me down in comparison to the old stuff.
Anybody Out There? was a solid album for its time, and it still ranks among my favorite works from my college years, Christian music or otherwise. But there are aspects of it that seem slightly dated now, perhaps even small concessions to the audience it was primarily meant for. You could tell at times that they had to clarify their phrasing a bit so radio audiences would “get it”, and here and there you can detect the odd instrusion of synths or other non-organic elements that didn’t seem to fit with their otherworldly ruckus. It’s the more oblique and raw moments on that album that would seem to carry forward to this comeback album, simply titled Burlap to Cashmere. While this new disc doesn’t cast its nets quite as wide in a sonic sense, it finds the band doing what they do best, from the Greek-inspired offbeat rhythms that I like to affectionately call “Digee Dime Time”, to a few four-on-the-floor acoustic throwdowns, to some surprisingly sensitive and literate ballads. What the album may lack in length (at just below 40 minutes, it may seem like a bit of a snack when you expected a full meal), it makes up for in creativity and the sheer joy of performance, shifting easily between its more playful and more somber moments, easily one-upping the odd pacing of its predecessor. The years during which the band lay silent aren’t ignored here – heck, one of Delopoulos’s finest solo songs is reworked with a full band arrangement here, and it easily stands alongside anything new that they’ve come up with collectively. The result is an album of summer fun that carries no guilt with it, that succeeds just as much as catchy pop music (at least, in the acoustic alternative sense of the word) as it does as cultured folk music, and that keeps its gaze longingly focused on the heavens without forgetting the dirt and toil of life on Earth. It’s not necessarily engineered for broad appeal – these guys are too delightfully offbeat to let a record label groom them too much – but all the same, it’s the type of album that’s likely to draw in a diverse barrage of fans from unexpected sectors of the music world, and that’s what Burlap to Cashmere has always done best. Whether it bests their first album is hard to say, but Burlap to Cashmere stands out as a thoroughly excellent record that would be every bit as exciting to me even if I’d never heard of the band before. It’s got the reckless joy of a debut and the wise consideration of a veteran band with a long career, seemingly all rolled into one.
1. Don’t Forget to Write
The opening song is a confident mantra, wafting in on the Aegean breeze with echoing vocals: “Keep your eyes on the new day/You and me, we are the same/Shout it out on the horizon/And don’t forget to change your name”. It picks up from there, establishing an upbeat yet gentle rhythm of 9/8, which will probably sound weird to those who haven’t heard it in traditional Greek music before, but you’ll have no less than four songs on this record to help you get comfortable with that sort of thing. Steven Delopoulos’s lyrics, as difficult to interpret as they can often be, seem to be like a string around the finger here, a reminder to never get so caught up in life that he misses out on the simple joy of writing and making music with his bandmates. Johnny Phillippidis solos on top of this spirited rhythm rather gracefully, waiting until the end of the song to really pull out the fast-fingered stuff. This all feels quite relaxing and reassuring, like sitting down to a generous meal and getting re-acquainted with old friends that we haven’t seen in far too long.
2. Build a Wall
I want to say that this song is pure aggression in acoustic form – it certainly feels that way with the unrelenting hammering of acoustic chords that Steven uses to establish an infectious, four-on-the-floor rhythm. But it’s actually one of the few Burlap songs that pulls out the old electric – an instrument used sparingly on their debut, and one that the band seemed rather ambivalent about compared to the magic they could wring out of their acoustics. It serves its function well here, adding a bit of snarl and an air of mystery to song that’s about so many things at once, I honestly don’t even know where to begin. It’s about a woman driving through the dark night, hunting down a man carrying a gun and Bible, and this sounds like a murder mystery in the making until it turns the corner into this odd metaphor about the prophet Nehemiah. It’s far from the comfortable language you might expect in a typical CCM song, using the Biblical reference almost as a cautionary tale about someone ready to mete out justice in the worst possible way. I haven’t pieced it all together, but I can say that the overall effect of the song is intoxicating, the kind of thing that works extremely well in a live setting, played with grit and fire and maybe even subconsciously speeding up as it goes along, like a freight train out of control. The chorus, while it has a melody, is a mere stone’s throw away from being shouted rather than sung, due to the gasps in which Steven seems to spit out the words and while the shouts of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” from the rest of the band that help to drive it all home remind me of the festive atmosphere of “Basic Instructions”, this is a very different song from that one, stripping out the elaborate soloing and other bells and whistles and relying on pure muscle to get its point across.
Steven has this odd way of singing about graves and bones and dust and things and making them sound more poetic than commonplace. He pulls that trick here, describing a decaying existence full of death and vice in a song that takes the same basic rhythm from “Don’t Forget to Write” (occasionally I confuse segments of the two songs in my mind) and paints it with darker hues, including even the occasional serrated edge from the electric guitar. Despite the inherent heaviness of the song, the chorus seeks to rise above all that, taking the moment for what it’s worth and declaring, “But tonight, tonight, the stars align/And it leaves a shade of wonder/Yes tonight, tonight/The star returns like thunder.” Steven’s use of the word “Selah” at the end of a few lines is probably meant to remind us of that same word as it is used in the Psalms, as sort of a worshipful pause between thoughts. I sort of like that, how the references to faith are there for those with ears to hear, but Christians in the audience have to rise to the level of literacy of the artist, rather than the artist dumbing it down to snag a bit of radio play.
4. Love Reclaims the Atmosphere
When a band’s most visible calling cards are its ethnic/world music flair and its tendency to play fizzlingly fast, it’s easy for the quiet ballads in their repertoire to get lost in the shuffle. Some of the slower songs on Anbyody Out There? took me years to fully appreciate, though part of that may have been my lack of musical maturity at the time. In any case, that’s not a problem with this hushed but gorgeous song, which was actually the first sneak peek of the new music that fans following the band’s newsletter were treated to when the album was still a few months away. It sounds much more like a lost Simon & Garfunkel tune than the Burlap to Cashmere that first grabbed our attention all those years ago, but in its gentle arpeggio and soft harmonies, it seems to speak volumes. Steven paints vivid pictures of smoggy cities and traffic and bodies decaying to dust here, but once again there’s an esoteric beauty in it all, with the universe somehow reordering itself and turning these setbacks and tragedies into reasons to start anew. This is all brought together in the cryptic yet powerful chorus: “The busy-ness of traffic as her garden starts to wither/She opens up her violin so the darkness can forgive her/And today we crucify the fear/As love reclaims the atmosphere.” This could have easily fit into one of Steven’s solo records, but I’m glad he saved it for the band. Experiencing this one live just sent all kinds of chills up my spine – and while it’s the kind of soft reflection that could easily close an album, putting it this far up in the tracklisting illustrates how confident they were that they had something special here. (Even more so live – they actually had the audacity to open with this one when I saw them a few months back.) The final lyrics make me smile for what I admit are purely biased reasons: “Be honest in transition when preparing for the feast/Send blessings to your critics, and careful with the least of these/Release the prisoners free.”
5. Closer to the Edge
Some of you are gonna think 30 Seconds to Mars when you see that song title. Sorry to disappoint you; it isn’t a cover of that high-energy rocker. It’s just about the opposite, being a laid-back mid-tempo song whose basic strum pattern can seem rather pedestrian at first, in light of what we know this band to be capable of. As with some of Steven’s more understated solo numbers, this one puts more focus on the lyrics, reveling in a series of contradiction, seeming to find life on the brink of losing it: “Closer to the edge I found/I was standing in the second round/I was laughing but I didn’t make a sound/Now I’m flying with my feet on the ground.” Again, I’m glad it was saved for the full band, as Johnny and the other guy add a lot to it with their harmonizing at the end of the chorus. Teddy Pagano’s drum fills also add a bit of dramatic flair. This one might be more of a base hit than a home run, but I still enjoy it.
6. Orchestrated Love Song
Now this is about as far from pedestrian as it gets. Remember how I said the rhythms in a few of those earlier songs could be confusing? Well, at least those rhythms were consistent. This one is sheer madness, building its beat from the 9/8 and 7/8 constructs heard elsewhere, but switching back and forth between them (and also between loud and soft) at odd intervals that are seemingly known only to the people playing them. It’s a wonder that Teddy Pagano can keep up with this madness, and even more so that Johnny can figure out how to fit a lightning-fast solo into this framework (albeit one that doesn’t last as long as I wish it did). The song feels like a madman’s rant, but unlike the darkness of previous rants such as “Divorce” or “Scenes”, it’s really just a guy rambling on rather optimistically about how the ocean brings people together and so “I want to live on a boat and sail away with my children”. If you can memorize the cadence of how those words are sung, it might be your only hope of singing along to any part of this song, given how they’re seemingly trying to trip you up on purpose. (Imagine this track as karaoke. Yikes!) Just because I can’t quite follow it doesn’t mean I don’t love every second of it, though – it’s the kind of thing that will leave your jaw on the floor if you ever get to see them pull it off in person.
7. Live in a Van
It takes a bit of gumption to throw a country song into the mix when you’re pretty firmly established yourself in more of a folk/rock vein. (Remember that you’re talking about a band from New York City who first made a name for themselves in Nashville – the latter being a place that is home to a lot of country music, but also home to a Christian music industry that seems to have an unnatural fear of country.) Pedal steel and even banjo come out to play for a bit here, as the band sticks to the tried and true topic of roaming around the country on four wheels and playing to whoever will here. It’s not without Steven’s own strange touch, of course, as he sets his eyes on more heavenly purposes for all of it: “There’s a sacred trust that is sealing up my sound/And I dream of Thomas Merton as I’m standing on the ground.” So all that traveling makes him want to become a monk, eh? That can’t be the right interpretation. But that’s the sort of thing that I enjoy being baffled by.
This one’s pure Mediterranean joy. The band was trying to avoid being too obviously Greek with some of the other songs that they couldn’t bring in other influences, because it’d be cloying to play that card too frequently, but here they drop that rule for a song as Steven and Johnny simply enjoy celebrating the beauty of their homeland. A beautiful woman is compared to a sunny island, a harbor in rough seas: “She is an island in the gypsy city night/She, you can hear the music playing as she opens up the sky/She will melt away your sorrow in her Santorini eyes.” The words sound completely natural despite the irregular rhythm (this time 7/8 and consistent all the way through), and it’s the way the melody lilts around the bounce of Teddy’s drums that makes it so unforgettable. It’s a pure genre exercise, but definitely one that Burlap to Cashmere knows how to pull off with authority. In doing so, they’ve created the perfect summer song.
9. Hey Man
This is the one track that I’ll admit I haven’t quite got into. Nothing wrong with it – Johhny’s got a delightful little acoustic run that he quickly cycles through, which helps give the song a unique stamp despite its not-quite-ballad, not-quite rocker status that threatens to leave it in the middle of the road. Maybe it’s what happens when that riff gives way to more generic chords from the electric guitar – I start to feel like a lot of folk/rock bands could have come up with this one. And that’s not to slight the uniqueness of Steven’s lyrics, which are once again rife with unusual and memorable phrasings: “You gotta crack the sky, then drink it all down/Sing in the city with that old folk sound/We are the love, and the love is bound/We are the love, and the love is lightning.” I really do like this one on paper. And there are little tidbits like the handclaps that come in at one point during the chorus to help spice it up musically. Still, it’s a bit short on an album that’s already lean on run time, so with many songs like that seem to unassumingly make their point and then get out of the way, I can’t help but wonder if it was a bit rushed.
I was genuinely surprised to hear the band whip this one out in concert – it’s my absolute favorite track on Me Died Blue, Steven’s excellent solo debut, and since it’s eight years old, I honestly hadn’t expected the band to acknowledge much from the time period when they were lying dormant. Turns out this wasn’t an interesting cover choice just for live shows – apparently they thought just as I did that the song was exceptional enough to be worth reviving full-time, and thus deserving of a spot on the album. This arrangement understandably takes out some of the stranger production elements (mostly the synth and female backing vocals) from Steven’s solo version, giving it more of a live band feel with the drums, bass and rhythm guitar doing most of the work. The chord progression was tweaked just a little bit here and there to add variance to its insistent, bluesy progression. Probably the oddest change, at least to my ears, is the pause between the verse and the chorus, where one line used to overlap the other in the solo version – Steven would just omit a syllable or two to make it work, but now he’s got room to sing them all despite having vocal backup. Little things like that threw me off when trying to sing along, but fundamentally it’s still the same excellent song. I’m glad they kept the banjo in there. The song’s theme of people coming and going like the changing of seasons fits in well with the album overall, concerned as it is with traveling and not being rooted in any physical place, while keeping an eye on more of an eternal destination. It’s well-placed here as it fades out and sets the stage for the album’s final song.
11. The Other Country
The album’s closing track is probably the clearest in terms of references to Christianity, which makes sense due to being a song with a very personal inspiration behind it. It’s based on the dying words of a relative of Steven and Johnny’s, who as the story goes, has one of those experiences of seeing the light ahead and being assured of what awaited after death, and being lucid enough to tell those by his bedside not to fear. That sort of thing sticks with a Christian, because who wouldn’t want that sort of assurance? So Steven worked it into this song, which is a little bit folk and a little bit country, with piano and a strong yet simple backbeat to drive it home. It actually has a similar aura to Anybody Out There?‘s closing track, “Mansions”, though that one had a nice little vocal vamp that gave it an air of finality. This one doesn’t quite have such a memorable hook to make it loop over and over in the listener’s mind, which can have the unfortunate side effect of making you think there’s still more to come when the album ends. But pay attention to the words and it’s still a poignant song. The final words – “I was blind, blind, blind, blind, but now I see”, while far from being an original phrase in Christian music, are also a nice little bookend because they echo a sentiment first expressed in “Don’t Forget to Write” at the beginning of the album.
Even while I wish there could be more to this album, and I feel the fear creeping back in as it ends that it might be another 13 years before I hear more from these guys, I still get this sense from the album overall that my ears have been generously tickled by the delicious performance, my mind has been engaged by the intriguing lyrics, and my soul has been fed by the subtle but effective stories of someone’s spiritual journey. It’s extremely rare that an album can do all three for me, and even more rare that it will come from a band whose name has ever been openly associated with “Christian music”. It’s for those reasons that I wholeheartedly recommend Burlap to Cashmere to folks looking for more intelligent expressions of faith in their music, or possibly even to skeptics who don’t think religion and music should even go together.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Don’t Forget to Write $1.50
Build a Wall $2
Love Reclaims the Atmosphere $2
Closer to the Edge $1
Orchestrated Love Song $2
Live in a Van $1
Hey Man $.50
The Other Country $1
Steven Delopoulos: Lead vocals, guitars
Johnny Phillippidis: Guitars, backing vocals
Theodore Pagano: Drums, percussion
Chris Anderson: Bass
Todd Caldwell: Keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.