First appeared on www.13thfloor.co.nz
As its title suggests, Hopeful/Hopeless is something of a tribute to those we’ve lost and those that remain. ‘Death’ is a common but never mournful theme running through these five beautifully crafted songs. This is also a fitting tribute to one of this country’s most innovative and supportive musicians, Sam Prebble.
Singer/Songwriter Reb Fountain, Sam Prebble (banjos, violin, guitar) and Dylan Storey (electric guitar) were part of a wee gang that I once met 10 years ago performing as Reb Fountain and The Bandits in Wellington’s former Happy (Blink’s old club) in Wellington. Simultaneously, Sam was pushing his own project, Bond Street Bridge. The band were officially there to promote Reb’s album, Holster, but that never stopped Sam from exploiting the opportunity.
One evening in August 2014 they got together at Auckland’s Wine Cellar with Dave Khan (accordion), Brendon Turner (bass) and Cole Godley(drums) to record some tunes live at the venue. This turned out to be the last time they’d perform with Sam in the band. These recordings were completed and mixed. But never released. It took some time for Reb to come to terms with the tragedy of his passing or to revisit recordings he’d worked on but she knew intrinsically that the only way forward was to reconnect with him was by completing their unfinished projects. And so, we get not one but two releases.
This ep (Hopeful/Hopeless) is the first, followed in September by the Little Arrows album. The Truth About Us opens the ep with Reb’s usual upbeat mournfulness. It’s the kind of Americana that she’s been crafting for some time now. Her voice is so familiar and often reminds me of Karin Bergquist (Over The Rhine). It has just enough melancholy to feel disturbed but she never sways into the corny or cliché. It’s lilting and haunting, floating almost in dream state over the band as she sings of giving away her possessions, toiling for the bank manager, the ogre of inner city high rises and other everyday battles. The theme of death emerges early, with a wish to avoid all these irritations: “I just hope we die young.” This is really a song about honesty in a relationship but once you know about the ep’s backstory you can help rethinking this one.
You get a sense of desperation in the title track, with its references to passing and remaining. If ever there was a reference to the gap between poverty and prosperity, it’s in the opening lines: “So much doubt up here in the wasteland / Like we sinners come undone”. Is the ‘wasteland’ Auckland. Does she refer to those who sleep in cars and line up at food banks while some sail 30ft yachts and dine at harbour side bistros? Reb’s poetry touches on religious themes in the tradition of many Southern country singers. The gentle strumming beat feels a little like a Johnny Cash number but with a more forlorn outlook. What I really like about this song is the optimistic hook in the chorus. Rather than being a depressing song about fate’s fickle hand it’s something more. It has the rousing tone of a Salvation Army Corner Band. Confident in overcoming death, evil and tyranny.
The fourth track, Dance With Death Alive, is the most personal. Here Reb sings about a dead father and dancing to keep memories alive. It’s not clear if this is her father or another’s. Although it was made prior to Sam’s departure you can’t help feeling that this could be about him. At the start she talks about Pap’s music collection Interestingly, she juxtaposes the music he played (“I grew up on Cowboy Songs, Folk Tunes and Hymns of The Lord/I used to think that a song was made to help you feel” ) with the commercial (“Strange, how a song made for money, just a cog in the wheel feels kinda dirty”). That’s also a comment on her own industry and her own part in it, I guess. She’s almost saying how necessary it is to sell her music to pay for his funeral.
There’s a foreboding line about losing someone and moving on in this song. “Strange how we hold on to what we were and what we do and some of us don’t want to remember these things. As if an answer, Sam’s understated banjos chatter away in the background like faded conversations in bar. That’s offset by Khan’s accordion, which adds a spot of melancholy and sets the tone of the song. Her take on death is one of sorrow, here. It’s always common to think you’ve lost direction when someone passes. “When I wasn’t looking, I lost the meaning of my life/ Seems like it’s the only imprint I get to remind me I’m still alive”. And by that she could mean the father’s record collections, as if playing these will bring back life. “Papa I think I found it lying at the foot of my ghost/That dollar bill so I can pay the man to bring your body back home. When my records are playing will you dance with death alive?” Towards the end of the song, her direction changes, maybe to a boyfriend of even a friend, inviting them to dance along and keep the memories alive. This is by far, the most pertinent song on the ep, it’s hard not to feel affected.
The final song, Crazy Horse and Violence, is another trademark of Reb’s – the cowboy torch song. A sorry tale of a man destined to die. “Crazy Horse and Violence were destined to be lovers…his father cried when he discovered that he bore a child of war….at 19yrs he joined the forces”. Those lines say it all. This time Sam’s violin does much of the speaking, played in the traditional Southern fiddle style you are immediately transported to a shanty shack in Forest Gump territory and taken along for the fateful ride.
There’s no denying that this is a special record, not just because of Sam…the warm ambience of the recording is like an embrace of comfort. You don’t feel like there’s been a tragedy. Reb said it best: “Releasing a record is nothing in comparison to the experience of growing it from the earth up with your loved ones. I will always have that time in my heart.” This, essentially, is at the essence of what you can hear on this wonderful record.