In 2017, it’s downright radical to commit to an itinerant lifestyle. Virtually no one can pull it off. Worse, the ones who can afford to do so waste it by staying in lavish dwellings in isolated perches or sequestered in mile-high hotels, away from society. Few are those interested in both the road and the people who built it.
It’s tough to know how much D. Gross, the Portland poet and songwriter who fronts the group Los Federales, commits to itinerancy on a physical plane, but his musical excursions travel far. On the complex and triumphant Crooks, his third full-length and first billed with band Los Federales, Dana Gross sounds fully arrived, mucking around in musical styles and perspectives born from the soil and kept alive by a passion and dedication that the elites have long forgot.
Crooks is a record it’d be impossible to make for anyone who isn’t a keen observer of people. “I sit here in limbo, watchin’ the world go by. Don’t like what I’m seein’, well it makes me want to cry,” he sings on “Limbo.” “Train II” has nowhere to be and it’s not hurrying to get there. He sounds downright jovial on opening track “Fishin’,” dipping in his toes in the water and throwin his watch in the waves. Put this song or any on this album in a large room of people and they’ll be lively, cheerier, and more vibrant.
But a close listen reveals plenty of dark notes too. By track two’s “Big and the Bigger,” Gross and co. move into a kind of Rain Dogs-y, wayward Americana. “Well, the big keep getting bigger, the small sure come undone,” he sings over six minutes of loose, rootsy Americana. Sure sounds fun to play, crackling with rich and varied timbres — a mix of congas, shakers, piano, electric guitar, bass, fiddle, djembe, and Hammond organ — and Los Federales manage to make it sound like something you’d find inside some strange tavern off the Mississippi. Yet as playful as it is to the ear, there’s a strange, kettled anxiety in these notes.
The pendulous “Warman,” where Gross embodies the character of a mysterious sinister ego, is an album highlight. Gross waxes about weapons, war machines and killing floors, “feeling little and posing tall.” It’s one of the record’s most explicit, but in songs like these Gross is doing what the expert songsmiths do, collapsing the anxieties of a cultural moment into poetic kernels buried in an otherwise accessible sound. That takes work, and more importantly, it takes time. Gross has labored both.
Whenever Crooks feel a little listless, Gross and company know how to liven things up, as though taking a shot from the medicine cabinets of his various musical hosts. “Crows and Vegetables” opens with a vibe that sounds like an early rehearsal jam of some half-cooked idea. Fine, but nothing to pay close attention to. But a couple minutes in, the band stirs in some unexpected psychedelia — hardly sounding like the group on the first few tracks — giving Gross new sonic terrain to play with. By then, he’s head-down doin’ his thing, telling a sprawling seven-minute poem about soothsaying crows outside his window, explaining to him a harrowing future.
The dexterity on this album is mighty, the willingness to travel through ideas and relationships and personas. From the haggard and rugged Americana of “Big and the Bigger” to the fiddle-colored rockabilly of “Anchor in the Sand” to the Mediterranean-inflected instrumental “Intifada,” Gross and the band cover a lot of ground. On his first two recordings, Juggernaut (2015) and We Left the Roadside (2010), Gross showed off his finely calibrated indie-bluesy Americana songs nicely, but they also seemed to slot into pre-existing frameworks for how folks (or how I, I suppose) apprehend singer-songwriter material. On Crooks, he’s got an aesthetic all his own. It’s steeped in an appreciation for genelation’s of salt-of-the-earth folk players before him and hardened by a view of the future as a place he’s wary of going. But as much work as he’s done, we’re gonna need him to come along.
CROOKS | by D.Gross & Los Federales | https://dgross.bandcamp.com/
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