When the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, even then there will still be one more sound: that of man’s puny, inexhaustible voice still talking.
Those are the words of William Faulkner, taken from his defiant, melancholy Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950. They are also one hell of a way to open a record. Welcome to Sons of Bill’s third album, Sirens.
Every town has its hometown heroes and Sons of Bill are Charlottesville’s. I had the disadvantage of meeting some of the guys in the band – three brothers with the last name of Wilson, believe it or not – and liking them as people, before I heard their music or saw them play. Awkward, right? Fortunately, their music had much to recommend it beyond the personalities that created it. Solid trad-songwriting with a knack for anthemic choruses and just the right amount of twang and affect – pretty much exactly what you might expect to rally a crowd in a Virginia college town: literate enough for the students, rowdy enough for everyone else. Nothing, in other words, that could have prepared me for Sirens.
On the surface, Sirens is a watertight example of the unfashionable music that is filed under ‘Americana’ these days: a mix of outlaw country and Southern rock with a strong existential bent. But this is not your average highway-lovin’ beast. There aren’t any love songs, or even any drinking songs. Listen closely, though, and you’ll discover an anachronistically coherent piece of work, what used to be called an album. Faulkner references abound, as do those to W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot. Not that they’re flaunting their obvious erudition; this is flesh-and-blood stuff, from start to finish.
The record opens with the lead single, “Santa Ana Winds”, an absurdly catchy slice of proto-Springsteen arena rock, with frontman James Wilson singing like his life depends on it. “Find My Way Back Home” bears an unmistakable (and comforting) likeness to Ryan Adams at his peak, while the driving “Siren Song” sounds like the best track Tom Petty forgot to record in 1978, an illegitimate cousin of The Gaslight Anthem’s “The ’59 Sound.” Yet the band transcends their influences – maybe it’s the mic-swapping family dynamic or the years spent on the road but Sons of Bill sound remarkably and confidently like themselves throughout. In fact, when producer (and former Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman) David Lowery shows up to sing a couple ebullient verses on the mood-breaking “Life in Shambles”, it’s clear that he’s crashing their party, not vice versa.
As a lyricist, James Wilson tends to go for the jugular. It’s brash rock n roll belief filtered through a country singer’s resignation all the way, melodramatic one moment, sobering the next, nostalgic at some points and timeless at others, bashful about its intelligence, yet always in conflict with itself. “This Losing Fight”, one of the album’s several highlights, is a particularly powerful example of Wilson’s gruff sensibility (which matches his gruff voice): “Waking up thinking ‘wish I could’/ Going to bed thinking ‘thought I would’/ But all you know is fourth grade posters lie.” It’s hard to write a song about recidivism with one fist in the air, but James pulls it off somehow.
But then... midway through the record, keyboardist Abe Wilson shuffles to the microphone and strikes up the epic death-and-resurrection centerpiece, “Turn It Up”, which also features some serious six-string fireworks from brother Sam. The generic title belies the (glorious) content; it’s an irrefutable statement of arrival – hometown heroes no more, the boys have risen to a whole new league. And we’re only at the end of side one (of the vinyl!).
Depending on your point of view, it either takes some serious integrity or recklessness for a band at this stage in their career to save their two best tracks for the very end of the album. But that’s exactly what Sons of Bill have done here. Indeed, Abe turns back up to deliver the immediate classic (Mbird- or otherwise), “Last Call at the Eschaton”, which may just be the song title of the year. A Creedence chord progression lays over a martial beat before: “Depression’s got you wondering just what we’ve got in store/ Your faith in civilization just ain’t working anymore/ Ain’t no use in talking about the Judgment Day/ Cause you and me, we don’t believe in judging anyway.” But then comes the chorus, which marks the first and therefore all-the-more genuinely uplifting sentiment on the record, albeit in a distinctly theology-of-the-cross kind of way: “Never mind the darkness, never mind the rain/ They say the rising waters are here to wash our sins away/ Never fear, the sky will clear, the day will linger on/ Just remember that the twilight looks a whole lot like the dawn.” Much of the record deals with the search for authenticity and truth in an age of anxiety and artifice; I doubt the band ever thought they would be the ones providing it.
“Virginia Calling” closes the record on an equally reverent and hard-won note, with James changing up his timbre slightly to serenade his home state. Maybe it’s the Eliot and Auden allusions (Wystan’s “Luther” poem no less!), but you get the feeling he is singing about something a bit Older than the Old Dominion. “I can hear Virginia calling, out to me/ Tonight I’ll sleep I’ll be alright.” Amen.
Gerhard Forde once wrote, “If you start from freedom, you will end in bondage. If you start from bondage you are more likely to end in freedom.” For proof of what he’s talking about, look no further. Sirens, people. Sirens.