In Brief: The Brooklyn collective’s third album is all over the place, which is a blessing and a curse. At times it’s their “Greek-est” album yet. At others, it reminds us they’ve got more up their sleeve than just being “that Greek folk band” as they delve into rock, country, and a teensy bit of jazz. But it’s also a bit of a disjointed hodge-podge that can feel like more of a clearing of the vaults from all those years the band lay dormant than a truly unified new album.
Burlap to Cashmere’s third album feels a lot like it could have been their second album. That’s a weird sentiment to start a review with, but I don’t mean it as a negative one. It’s not every band that can take a 13-year break between their first and second albums and still come out as strong as ever on the other side of that long hiatus. Surely there’s going to be some creative output from such a long period of time that either never saw the light of day, or that only ever made its way to our eager ears in bits and pieces, in live shows and in the solo work their lead singer put out during that long period when we weren’t sure if the sleeping giant would ever awaken. Normally the first album back is when all that stuff finally finds an official home on a studio recording. Yet it’s the band’s third record, Freedom Souls, that seems to capture that “lost” chapter of their history even more so than Burlap to Cashmere did four summers ago. I’m quite certain that most of its material was, in fact, written after the release of their second album, but there are a few songs here that have been floating around for a loooooooong time. It’s the kind of record that sees the band branching out from their Greek heritage-inspired folk/rock sound in sometimes surprising ways, exactly the kind of thing you’d expect on a sophomore album from a band just itching to spreading their wings and try something new, undeterred by the lack of a guarantee that the audience they garnered with their first record would totally “get it”. Their self-titled, excellent as it is, feels a lot more like the sort of re-introduction you’d get from a band who realized that perhaps their second record took them too far afield. Flip the chronology on these two, and suddenly they make a lot more sense.
Now I don’t mean all of that as a knock against Freedom Souls. I’ve probably clued you in that it isn’t my favorite of their three albums, but Anybody Out There? and their self-titled were both excellent in their own way; those are tough albums to live up to, especially for a band looking to experiment a bit. Freedom Souls is an album that had to win me over in pieces, because I feel like I’m time-traveling through different phases of their career as I listen to it. A few of the songs take full advantage of the lightning-speed acoustic guitar picking and strumming, and the unconventional (yet very Greek) rhythms that made so many of the tracks on their first album stand out. Several songs in between probably could have ended up on a solo album by lead singer Steven Delopoulos, and just like on their self-titled, one of these songs actually is a reworked Delopoulous track, though it’s so radically re-imagined in this case that you might not notice at first. They’re also a band that can swing wildly back and forth between lyrics that are cryptic and lyrics that are openly reflective of their Christian faith, which I guess was true even when they were the next big thing in CCM all those years ago, but nowadays there are no outside expectations pushing them to have more or less “religious” content in their songs. I kind of feel like each track on this album , whether it’s the “lai-lai-lai” heavy Greek stuff or some truly strange forays into genres like smooth jazz and country, gets to be its own distinct thing, with no pressure for all of it to have a clear unified theme or message. I like that, because Delopoulos is one of those songwriters with a weird knack for juxtaposing the heavenly and the earthly in sometimes jarring ways, and he’s free to be his weird self here. His cousin Johnny Philippidis, probably one of the most insanely talented acoustic guitarists alive, also doesn’t let himself get painted into a corner, giving us the pyrotechnics when a song calls for it but also adding some lovely subdued colors to certain songs, and it all feels organically dependent on the character each song took on its own as it was being developed. They’ve brought a few original band members back into the fold who played on that first record now almost two decades ago, so in a way Freedom Souls feels like a homecoming. It’s probably not the first record I’d suggest for someone to get a handle on the Burlap to Cashmere sound, but it’s definitely an interesting case of a band following their own weird muse, leading to highly entertaining results most of the time.
1. I Will Follow
Steven sang about “rambling” on his cover of Tom Paxton‘s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” several years ago, and I can’t help but feel like it’s an implicit theme in a lot of his songs – as if they’re designed to be listened to while you’re driving aimlessly around the country, hoping to find yourself. His love of country music comes to the forefront here in this quick strumming song, which at times borders on bluegrass with its use of the mandolin and banjo, but then a really strong rhythm section comes in and you’re reminded that Burlap is not so easily pinned down. Steven began writing this song about losing his faith in himself and finding it in God nearly 20 years ago, and I’m sure it would have fit in just fine with a lot of the lyrical themes on their first record, but it’s certainly no worse for the wear as it’s presented here now.
2. The Great I Am
Once the frenetic acoustic guitar strumming begins and Steven rattles off some rapid-fire “La-la-lee-lee-lee-lie-la-lie”s, you know you’re in for a strong dose of the classic Burlap to Cashmere sound. This song pretty effectively captures the wonderment I felt when I first heard “Basic Instructions” all those years ago. If anything’s changed since then, it’s that Steven’s become more adept at weaving together clearly religious lyrics with oblique, open-ended ones. We all know that when he sings “Forward to the Great I Am”, he’s referring to God, but when he sings “Left behind the great I was”, it’s a bit more open to interpretation, even if the themes of surrender and re-dedication to faith are pretty clear throughout. The band sounds joyous as they sing of being delivered from hard times here, and I’m sure that as lively as they sound in the studio, it pales in comparison to the ruckus they’d whip up on a song like this in concert. Johnny gets ample space for one of his all-time best guitar solos in the bridge – I’d put good money on that man being one of the absolute best acoustic guitarists alive today. Instant classic, this one.
3. Freedom Souls
The album’s first surprising change-up comes about when the abrupt ending of “The Great I Am” segues not so brilliantly into the vintage, lounge-style keyboards that softly open this track. I’m not gonna lie – it’s downright cheesy. The drum programming that lightly taps along once the verse gets going doesn’t help matters. This seems to go against the mostly organic spirit of the band’s discography thus far. Stick with this one, however, and you’ll find some richness beneath its schmaltzy exterior. The acoustic guitar still picks out a lovely melody, borrowing some tricks from a few favorite jazz musicians that cause the chord progression to turn some unexpected corners. Listening to Steven and Johnny harmonize here is a treat. And the song’s energy really kicks in at the chorus – so much so that I’m a bit irritated they soft-pedaled it so much on the verse, because there is absolutely no correct volume at which to listen to this song. Overall, once the organic and electronic elements of this song have been fully integrated, I appreciate its textures overall – especially in the spacey bridge which almost veers into vintage R&B territory. All of this discussion of bold new territory for B2C, and I haven’t even begun to dig into the lyrics – I can partially blame the band there, because no lyric sheet was included with the mp3 download they gave to us contributors who bankrolled the making of the album. I think I’m hearing stuff like “Go to the sea, fill your heart with ice”, and it’s just plain odd, given the joyous tone of the song. But the last line of the chorus makes the intended mood of it clear: “Pack your souls, your lives will never end.”
I always geek out over irregular time signatures. I think at this point, Burlap has done enough songs in either 5/8 or 7/8 time that I should probably stop calling those meters “irregular”. But it’s where their music sounds the “Greek-est”, and I’m pretty much guaranteed to find any song delightful that they give this odd yet traditional treatment to. Here they apply that aesthetic to what otherwise might be a soulful country song – the lead instruments are the electric guitar and organ, and the song just comes bursting in like a ray of happy sunshine. Again, there’s this tension between lyrical abstraction – the line “I was in my bed, a thousand lizards in my head” is what they open with, for crying out loud – and yet the song comes around to this moment of spiritual clarity, telling this titular “Tonilou” person that they are the “chosen one” and that they’re capable of having far more faith than they think they are. For all I know, this song could have come across a bit sappy, or just downright confusing, but it’s the urgency of that rhythm, which seems to be giddily jumping ahead of itself at all times, that makes it such a delightful thing to listen to.
5. 16 Miles
Musically, there’s nothing terribly unusual about this track – it’s the ideal travel song, with its tick-tock rhythm and its driving, motor-mouthed chorus. Steven sings of “walking back from exile”, and I’m sure this is a reference to a period of personal darkness that he went through, but describing the distance he had to go to escape it as “16 miles, 17 miles, 18 miles, 19 miles, 20 miles” makes it sound a bit anti-climactic, like he just took a long hike from The Bronx to Brooklyn or something. (Plus there were those other guys that sang about walking five hundred miles and five hundred more – silly as it is, that’s kind of the gold standard for songs about long walks.) What’s most interesting about these lyrics is that nearly everything except for the chorus seems to have been recycled from the song “Halt” off of Steven’s solo album Straightjacket, which is less of a song and more of a bizarre spoken word, performance-art piece that is easily more out there than anything Steven or the band has done before or since. I like the B2C’s albums since their comeback have repurposed songs from Steven’s solo years, but I have to say that their largely faithful remake of “Seasons” on the last album was much more my speed.
At the album’s midpoint comes its first true ballad – which could have easily been a solo work by Steven, because the rest of the band’s involvement is more subdued here. I like the piano and lap steel that the other guys contribute, but this one’s really about Steven’s guitar and his weather, Cat Stevens-doppelganger vocals. To be honest, I’m not really feeling the lyrics on this one either. He’s recounting a dream in which I guess he was some sort of a Moses figure, trying to shine God’s light in a dark place but getting ignored by the powers that be, which left him softly praying for God to “pass over” him… with the implication being that some sort of wrath will rain down on the rest of the world? Nothing about the song is nearly that sinister, so I don’t want to read a judgmental tone into it, but I’m certainly confused. Genre-wise, I feel like this is more middle-of-the-road for Burlap, and they’re not bad at it, but it kind of reminds me of “Treasures in Heaven” from their first album – a pretty enough song, but it kind of felt like the obvious safe pick for mellower Christian radio stations, and that’s sort of how I feel about this one, too.
7. Agape Mou
I’ve mentioned a few songs with obvious Greek influence thus far, but this is the one that really goes off-the-deep-end with its Greek-ness, and like “Santorini” on their last album, I love it for that. it’s delicate and yet urgent, bringing back the stuttering 7/8 meter that made “Tonilou” so memorable, but this time filling it with a whole lot of delicious acoustic fingerpicking, of a decidedly otherworldly flavor. Steven and Johnny really get to jam on this one, and it’s beautiful and yet mournful, matching the fervent and yet desperate prayer as Steven refers to God (presumably) as “Agape Mou”, which I’m guessing translates to “My Love”, pleading not to be left alone to die in whatever dire situation he’s currently going through. This might be one of the most performance-oriented pieces on the album – another track where I’m sure a live version would blow the studio version out of the water, and yet that doesn’t make this studio version any less amazing. The abrupt ending here really catches me off guard – everything just stops and Johnny’s fingers just sort of tumble down the fretboard, he pauses, and then tumbles further down, and you expect him to land on a resolved chord after the second pause – but nope, next track!
8. Brain Fog
Just about every aspect of this song is jarring. It stutters along, with the guitar and organ hitting mostly the same chord over and over, while Steven raggedly sings about lying in bed in a daze, praying to God for healing – it’s like he’s got the spiritual equivalent of mono or something. In a lot of ways it’s the antithesis of what I’d expect from Burlap to Cashmere, since everything about this song is sheer brute force and I’m used to a bit of elegance and intricacy in everything they do. Even on “Build a Wall”, which was entirely constructed around two chords, I still felt that. This track just feels like the ravings of a madman. Once the surprise of this being a really different sound for Burlap wears off, it’s just sort of tedious. It’s not entirely without musical merit, but it’s easily my least favorite track on the album.
9. River in My Head
OK guys, enough with the cheesy keyboard intros. I guess in this case it’s just good old piano. But it’s got that “candlelit dinner music” sort of quality to it, which is at odds with the more country feel of the actual song, even if it does foreshadow the verse melody. Once the acoustic guitars show up, I’m much more receptive to it. I’d say this is the most peaceful song on the album, though it does work its way up to a brisk shuffle like the opening track did, just with a lighter touch. Lovely vocal harmonies and a touch of steel guitar make it once again the kind of song you’d want as a companion while those long highway miles just breeze on by. I could see this working as more of a laid-back closing track in the vein of “Mansions” or “The Other Country”, though it does come to a bit of a sudden end. However, Burlap decided to go with a more unorthodox ending on this record.
10. Dialing God
It’s interesting that this album seems to be bookended by its oldest songs. I distinctly remember listening to a live stream of one of their concerts circa 2000 that ended with this song, and I recall it being pretty out there, in a way that had me excited for whatever twists and turns they were gonna take on that second album that Burlap fans still naively believed was just around the corner at that point. It’s a slow, haunting track that can stretch out to nearly ten minutes in concert, but for the sake of the studio album, it’s broken up into two tracks of three minutes and change a piece – one for the song proper, and one for the instrumental jam that follows. The song is sparse and haunting, with the guitars having a Middle Eastern sort of feel, and the lyrics rife with rich imagery of life under “third world skies” and… well, some other stuff that I don’t fully understand. It gets a bit existential, with Steven wondering if “this voyage, dull and mechanical” is just a trick of the mind or whether he’s really there experiencing it all firsthand. The percussion is really interesting here – Theodore Pagano may well be the band’s unsung hero for all of the interesting ways he’s found to give most of the songs on this album a unique backbone, but he especially shines here. The main weakness of this track is that it seems to go through several structural changes in such a short period of time, never really settling on a main hook or taking the time to fully inhabit the mystical world that it sets up. Its climax seems to come too early as a result. A little more time for instrumental rumination between verses probably could have helped this.
11. Dialing God (Instrumental)
Aside from the first minute or so of it having that same sparse, dusty feel as the main song, the two tracks actually don’t have that much in common musically. They could have named this track something else and I’d never have assumed they were meant to be connected, at least if I hadn’t heard them presented as a continuous piece all those years ago. But somehow they manage to accomplish more without words here than they did in the preceding song. As Johnny begins to ascend and descend the scale in decidedly Mediterranean intervals, the mood gradually transforms, and before you know it the entire band is jamming at breakneck speed. It’s like you’ve been wandering around confused on some abandoned alley in a desert village, and suddenly you stumble across a lively Greek wedding and are immediately invited to join the festivities, and next thing you know you’re dancing around in circles so furiously that you black out. This piece was of course forged in the fire of their live shows, and it’s absolutely the kind of thing that would make perfect sense as rousing encore there. It’s a strange and abrupt way to end a studio album, but I sort of love it for that.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
I Will Follow $1.25
The Great I Am $2
Freedom Souls $1
16 Miles $.75
Agape Mou $2
Brain Fog $.50
River in My Head $1
Dialing God $1
Dialing God (Instrumental) $1.50
Steven Delopoulos: Lead vocals, guitars
Johnny Philippidis: Guitars, backing vocals
Theodore Pagano: Drums
Mike Ernest: Guitars
Roby Guarnera: Bass