Tender Mercies

On Further Review

A BEST OF 2011 ALBUM SELECTION - Most records burdened with taglines like “20 years in the making” are reunions, long-lost tapes or overblown box sets. There’s a pretty good chance you’ve never heard of Tender Mercies, as this is their first album, and yet in a sense it belongs in two times; with a foot both in 1993 than in 2011. How? The answers go a long way to explaining the pure, unhurried charm of this record.

As a young, upcoming musician in early 90s San Francisco, Counting Crows guitarist Dan Vickrey met promoter Patrick Winningham. Vickrey soon joined Winningham’s own band, where he met keyboard player Charlie Gillingham. Gillingham went on to join the nascent Counting Crows, and when they needed a second guitarist, Charlie recommended Dan. The rest was history; "Mr Jones" hit the radio, August and Everything After went multi-platinum and Patrick Winningham lost his guitarist, seemingly for good.

With the band dormant, Vickrey took some Winningham songs to his new band; in the intervening years, Counting Crows borrowed at least three of them. "Four White Stallions" was a UK bonus track on 2002’s Hard Candy whilst "Wiseblood" was a live staple in their early days. They even recorded "Mercy" for the soundtrack to Georgia (which starred Patrick’s sister Mare Winningham.) Last year, Vickrey finally reconvened Winningham and bassist Kurt Stevenson and, along with current Crows drummer Jim Bogios, set about recording some demos of the songs they used to play. The project gathered momentum and became a fully-fledged album, released last month.

With fellow Crow Dave Bryson mixing, it’s tempting to conclude this is no more than a record for the diehard Counting Crows fan, but that notion disappears rapidly with the album in hand. Whilst Vickrey might have taken the lead in getting this record made, song writing credits are awarded mostly to Winningham and Kurt Stevenson.

THE SOUNDS - For the most part it’s a spare sound, one that befits a recording that evolved from demos to a full album without ever leaving Vickrey’s living room. The guitar-bass-drums core is augmented with occasional organ (Dan Eisenberg) and pedal steel moments, but more often than not, less is more. There’s a definite alt-country tinge to their sound, like a less frantic Uncle Tupelo with harmonies by the Jayhawks. You quickly get the sense that playing together again was a lot of fun, and their enjoyment is infectious.

The opening two tracks set the tone, "Four White Stallions" in particular laying down a benchmark with its 12-string jangle and impassioned harmonies. It is followed by the more delicate Heaven Knows. A Jackson Browne-esque descending guitar pattern and a shuffling rhythm with brushes on snare lend it a timeless air. Angeline, another Vickrey song, shares its cosy, relaxed vibe and delicate backing vocals as Stevenson displays his multi-instrumental talents on slide guitar, violin and mandolin.

At the other end of the scale, "Scarecrow" is slow, bluesy and breaks down to a raucous extended jam. It could be an outtake from the last Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, right down to Vickrey’s grinding, screeching Mike Campbell-like solo, a glorious, chaotic outro reminiscent of the Beatles’ "I Want You (She’s So Heavy)" as it wends its wild, discordant way to an end. For long-term Crows fans, it’s a delight to hear Dan’s playing liberated from their somewhat crowded seven-piece line-up. He sounds unhurried, liberated and builds an atmosphere with layers of reverb and tremolo; close your eyes and you can almost smell hot dust on old tube amps.

Their success in moving between those two extremes suggests a band comfortable with the songs and themselves, and they rarely put a foot wrong. The arrangement of Mercy is perhaps a little too rousing and seems to jar with its lyrical plea for redemption, but that aside it’s a well-judged set.

AN HONEST RECORD -The whole record has a relaxed feel, the sound of seasoned professionals in their comfort zone. These are young songs performed out of time by old players, a little slice of the Bay Area scene circa 1993, transported to 2011. This is perhaps what lends the album such a sense of honesty; having long since grown out of the bravado that comes with being young musicians, these four friends sat down in the guitarist’s living room and made a sweet, soulful rock’n’roll record, and by the sound of it they had a blast. Highly Recommended.

Tender Mercies
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Anonymous said…
Brilliant tunes, love it!! :-)
Anonymous said…
TENDER MERCIES IS A SMASH HIT!!!! One of the best for sure!!!!-J.R.
Anonymous said…
It really is a great record. Start to finish thinks me. Good review too.

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