REDEYE CARAVAN – Snake Oil & Lullabies EP

Formed in 2019, Greek band Redeye Caravan bill themselves as “dark country”, but their sound runs far deeper than that. For those people who are country averse, it’ll come as a relief that they don’t necessarily fit the country mould – or certainly not as a lot of people would perceive it. For example, the brilliant ‘El Muerto’ from their 2020 album ‘Nostrum Remedium’ actually plays more like a swamp blues; a landscape where acoustic slide guitars meet haunting harmonica lines and a gruff vocal comes a little closer to the work of Molly Hatchet. The same record features a choir of vocals exploring some moody folk sounds (‘Banshee’); a marriage of hefty twanging guitars and whistled melodies on a piece that’s clearly modelled on an Ennio Morricone score for a Western (‘Old Debt’), and even a mix of blues and cajun (‘The Road North’). There are hints of something a little more traditional when ‘At Gallows End’ plays more like a moody Johnny Cash number by way of Mark Lanegan, but it would be hard to pigeonhole the whole affair as “a country record”.

Their 2023 release, ‘Snake Oil & Lullabies’, has just as much to give, despite only being a four track EP. The band have clung firmly onto their narrative style, and each of the tracks tells a definite story, all of which come together to create a very well formed piece.

‘The Circus’ opens the release with another arrangement with an intro that relies heavily on a tolling bell sound, whistles and sparse Spanish guitar sounds. The love for Morricone is as subtle as a blacksmith’s anvil to the face, but nevertheless, incredibly welcome. The arrival of a rhythm introduces one of the band’s most country rooted arrangements to date, leaning on a heavy twang from the early 60s, but this is offset by a gang vocal that hints at an almost carny feel. If this feels a little novelty, then so be it – these guys obviously don’t care. In fact, they force the issue further by presenting a vocal that sounds like Blaze Bayley pretending to be Tom Waits, indulging in a full-on ringmaster routine. Roll up, roll up, indeed; you’re now fully immersed in a place that sounds like the musical equivalent of a dusty street, and while you nervously await the black-hatted man from the saloon, there’s more time to immerse yourself in a tune where clanky guitar lines are interspersed with more moody vocals, wordless interludes sound as if they’re lifted from ‘Fistful of Dollars’ and – eventually – a mean, twangy solo stokes up a grumbling mood.

Venturing deeper into a traditional country vibe, ‘Slow Trains Are Never Late’ plays like an old Johnny Cash tune reworked by Tom Waits, and the marriage of gruff voices and chugging rhythms actually sounds like a grizzled old locomotive making one of its final journeys. The vocal meter is rather reminiscent of Tom’s ‘God’s Away On Business’, but a rootsy musical arrangement gives the track a completely different character. Light on percussion, it throws some great guitar work into the spotlight; the hard strummed chords lay out a taut and tough tune that’s more than durable, but the highlight comes via an impeccably played solo where clean strings twang in a particularly busy fashion. Eventually, the band’s beloved choir vocals fill a climax in a way that makes you realise that the ghost of Morricone is never far away, and overall, the combination of mood and melody makes this the EP’s best track.

An important musical balance is redressed when ‘Cardinal Sin’ revisits Redeye Caravan’s love of acoustic blues, and the playing on this track is every bit as sharp as before. In fact, there’s something about the mix of crisply plucked acoustic sounds and bluesy slide that suggests a love of The Allman Brothers Band, even though a much deeper vocal and slower tempo means it has nothing else in common with those legends. The main melody pulls the mood further towards sounding like an off cut from Mark Lanegan’s ‘Winding Sheet’ (a record collection essential), and some subtle organ accompaniment conjures imagery of a small Wild West town, a chapel and schoolroom, before the climax gets a little angrier. Going even more retro, the vocal on ‘The Town’ could be another Morricone lift, and indeed, the main tune sounds like something from a late 60s spaghetti western. Cutting between the riffs, a near spoken vocal tells of the town’s natives, much in the way Leonard Cohen might’ve done on a similar track, but percussive noises used to convey the presence of horses, a sultry violin and other pizzicato strings keep this very much in keeping with the best Redeye sounds. With the narrative outshining most of the music, it plays as if it belongs over the end credits of a movie – Redeye Caravan’s cinematic style clearly reaching its peak – and then…with an abrupt end, the listener is left in complete silence to contemplate this quirky exhibition from the world of independent roots music.

Those who liked the previous album will find a lot to enjoy here but, naturally, the Redeye Caravan audience needs to grow, and with a bigger obsession with Morricone, this EP might just open some new ears. It’s a bit more country sounding than the previous record in places, but complete enough to work as showcase for the band, Fans of rootsy, semi-acoustic sounds will find some musical kinship straight away despite an occasional penchant for novelty, and in a very moody vocal, there’s an ominous tone that really gives this material an edge that’ll attract fans of some of history’s darker wordsmiths. Redeye Caravan are very much marching to their own drum, stylistically – there’s no care for fashion here, even in an Americana sense – but, in a lot of ways, that just makes them better. This won’t be for everyone, but it’s certainly a listening experience worth having.

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July 2023