September 2007

The Pines - Sparrow in the Bell
Red House Records RHR CD 201
Format: CD
Released: 2007

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt, the songwriting duo that performs and records as the Pines, write atmospheric acoustic music that is low-key yet intense. The lightly strummed acoustic guitars and the brushes on the drums can’t hide the strong current of emotion that runs through the ten songs on the duo’s second disc, Sparrows in the Bell. The CD's outer cover contains black-and-white photos of the singers that look like 19th-century daguerreotypes, and the music on the disc evokes a feeling of the distant past, in the same way Dylan’s recent discs or Springsteen’s acoustic records do.

Benson Ramsey’s father, Bo, co-produced Sparrows in the Bell with the Pines, and he plays guitar on four tracks. Bo has played on and produced records by Greg Brown, Iris Dement, and Lucinda Williams, and his playing on Sparrows in the Bell has a brooding, dark tone. The recording feels full but not crowded, and it’s the subtle details, such as the interplay between the acoustic guitar and piano (played by Benson’s brother, Alex) on "Throw Me in the River" that grab you.

Huckfelt and Ramsey both sing in slightly hushed tones, but it is easy to tell them apart -- Huckfelt’s voice is slightly harder-edged. Their lyrics are often sad, but not despairing. "Throw Me in the River" is compact and powerful, like a well-crafted short story. In the photo I mentioned above, Ramsey and Huckfelt appear to be fading into the wall behind them, like apparitions. What is really fading, it sometimes seems, is honest, heartfelt music like this.