AFTER RELEASING AN EP followed by one album – not to mention doing a lot of touring – Auckland alt-country hero Bernie Griffen and his Grifters parted company at the end of last year. Following some solo gigging around the place he has returned, having assembled a crack group of musicians, with a slightly darker, more rocking bunch of songs for Salvation.
The new band, charmingly named The Thin Men, consists of former Grifter Steve Roach on guitar, Bernie’s partner Kirsten on backing vocals, Marcus Lawson on keys, Louise Evans on violin and Phoenix Foundation drummer Chris O’Connor providing the perfect soundtrack to Griffen’s gnarled, brooding tales of love, life, despair and recovery. They give a real rhythmic energy, even to the slower songs, with thundering bass lines that keep your heart and feet immersed in the music, featuring ethereal fiddle, writhing waves of organ and fuzzy guitars with some masterful fretwork. And while O’Connor’s sublime drumming gives real life to the songs, it’s Griffen’s voice that gives them their soul. He sings like a weary traveller, a hoary drunken drifter, a salty old rocker, a former hard man seeking some sort of redemption; but rather than a Southern American drawl he possesses a ragged, earthy bellow that owes as much to his New Zealand heritage as to his American influences.
Plaintively bending guitar notes open the album on the broken-hearted ‘Crying Too’. The rhythm section sets the groove and during the mournful refrain “If you loved me/None of this would be happening”, it’s apparent Kirsten Warner’s backing vocal on this and throughout the record is an ideal contrast to Bernie’s distinctive voice, adding a softness without detracting from the grit of the theme. Next track, the somewhat unsettling ‘Burial Ground’, is a dark rumination on revenge with banjo adding a sinister undercurrent and while it is simple fantasy, one can’t help but imagine Griffen himself, as protagonist, carrying out his desires. ‘Huka Falls’, a song perhaps about estrangement and exposure, is a banjo-led waltz and the jaunty ‘Five Rivers’, the most country sounding track on the album, just needs a couple of blasts from a train whistle. ‘Patti Smith’ is an obscure cover of a 1980s Flying Nun band and an ode to the New York singer and artist, and it’s totally in keeping with Griffen’s own fine songwriting on the album. Bernie steps aside to take on backing duties for his beloved on ‘Circus Song’, on the surface an enjoyable reflection on childhood dreams – though one feels it goes much deeper than that. Warner has a fine singing voice which fits in nicely with the rest of the album and the band adds a real rolling circus flavour – in a kind of Tom Waits meets Lennon/McCartney fashion, though without the junkyard, the LSD, or the twee.
Salvation was apparently recorded in no time at all with all but two of the songs in just one take – a further testament to the talented folk involved – and you can hear it, feel it, in the immediacy of these finely crafted songs. There’s an edginess, an integrity here that is often lost on highly polished, over-produced recordings. Like the song writing itself, this is truly honest stuff.
While his influences are perhaps pretty obvious, Griffen makes no pretence as to where he is or where he comes from. He doesn’t try to sound American and he sings about Huka Falls, mentions Cuba Street and Highway 1 and you can’t get much more Kiwi than “someone crossing the centre line”. In saying that though, Bernie and his Thin Men (and, er, Women) have pretty much produced the soundtrack for the next few seasons of True Detective, Justified or anything of that ilk. Cue shadowy trees, cold sprawling rivers and whiskey fuelled heartbreak and murder.
This is a superb album from beginning to end with no one song overstaying its welcome – you’ll find yourself going back for more again and again. While at times rather sombre, Salvation never depresses; there’s light in the mire and the music complements Griffen’s rumpled musings with a kind of hopefulness. Gritty, dark and raw, just like life itself, this a record to be proud of – for musician and listener alike. ANDREW BAKER
Sound = 4/5
Music = 4/5