By Chad Nance
What we have here, friends and neighbors is an album. Not a CD. Not simply a collection of some songs that the band has been working up live for the last few months, and definitely not a demo. Gulley’s recently released, Salem, is a strong and cohesive work of songwriting and studio craft that is a triumph for the young band and further evidence that there is a real rock music scene percolating under the surface here in Camel City.
Chobey Badgio’s voice has character. Not just aping another singer- his is one of those voices that seems to have it‘s own distinctive “accent.” Singers like Dave Matthews, Adam Duritz, and Tim Booth of the British outfit James come to mind immediately on hearing the first lines of The Night is Calling Me. Nick Badgio and Witherspoon’s work on the album’s opening make the number propulsive but loose, fitting the cinematic arrangement and production. Chobey’s lead guitar has an almost ringing resonance and sustain than feels lived in rather than sterile and produced.
One of the top tracks on this quality collection, Could You Help Me Out bounces along on snaps and a piano riff that sound lifted from late 60’s Motown “Bubble Gum Soul” as produced by The Corporation. Badgio’s guitar grinds into the chorus, though, doing a good job of dirtying the proceedings enough to grime up Jordan Connell’s Bruce Hornsby-like fill. It is Connell’s organ work on this song that further allows it to have an authentic and playful soul sound building on top of Nick’s driving base-line. Witherspoon’s drumming pushes and fills in the space at the same time creating a robust sound that goes bigger than Gulley’s three-man lineup would have you believe they could.
Live Forever is the most mature track on the album with a layered production that is more about counter-point and tension than it is about direct melody. The chorus howls into the room breaking the ratcheted tension of the first third of the song.
“I sit and I wonder
what my purpose is in life
And I sit and I wonder
What will happen when I die
Selling secrets I swore I had kept
Nothing’s unknown about me anymore
Selling my life to strangers I’ve never met
Never quite done that before”
The lyrics on Live Forever offer nothing in the way of solutions, but sound like a young man beginning to ask the questions that come up in the brutal transition from our protracted American adolescence to when life stops floating along on a sea of self-absorption and really begins, in earnest, the process of hammering you squarely in the nuts. This track is a fully thought out rock ballad that is crafted with professionalism and care while retaining narrative structure that is complex and moving.
Gulley builds Maybe Someday on Witherspoon’s propulsive drumming. With it’s fife and drum core rhythm the song has the feel of a Celtic dirge. Guest vocalist Catherine Schiemann’s voice joins Badgio on Maybe Someday bringing a mystery and beauty to the arrangement with her strong voice and delicate phrasing that allows for both intimacy and the kind of belting required by the form.
Just past halfway a two song suite (Loose Ourselves and Colorblind) really cements Salem‘
s existence as a true “album” as opposed to simply a collection of songs by Gulley. These two tracks have an epic scope built into the music by the “movements” and changes that pull the listener into the narrative. These full and complex arrangements show a maturity and song craft that is not always present in the lyrics.
Colorblind is Salem’s festival ready rock epic. Nick’s rolling base line, Witherspoon’s layered fill, and Chobey’s riff heavy guitar lead played low in gunslinger mode make it almost possible to smell sun block see the hula hoop girls spinning their brains out on the periphery of the crowd. The lyrics sound equal parts music fest fling and summer camp crush in a way that carries through the changes in the arrangement. Liz May’s engineering work is front and center in the mix on Colorblind creating a intricate architecture on which Chobey is able to lay down both a scorching guitar solo and a powerful lead vocal that is muscular, but still has enough subtly to keep the whole enterprise from simply coming across as big venue bluster.
The title track, Salem, is a plaintive number that seems to be pulled between some sort of innate Americana impulse and Jordan Connells excellent work on piano which creates a mash-up that is similar to Don Henley’s song Damn It Rose on his Inside Job recording. The lyrics feature the kind of plaintive anguish that comes with losing that first college age love in your early 20s. If the album has weakness it is that the music and the production often seem more mature than do the lyrics. That is not to say that the lyrics are not solid and the album’s songs well-crafted… but there are some things that come to a songwriter through life experience. The songs on Salem are a young man’s lament to a lost love. There are none of the self-reflected angst of rock’s ultimate break-up record (Blood on the Tracks) rather the heft here is in the music. Gulley’s broken heart, while worn on their sleeve, is still a young organ that will heal with little scarring. The older you get the harder it is to let go of love without leaving serious chunks of flesh missing.
As a solid album should, Salem ends with a promise. Into the Fog is a well produced strait rock and roll number that puts the listener right back in the dirt and under the sun for that festival set from Colorblind. Live Gulley packs more of a rock and roll punch, but on Salem they are clearly as acclimated to the studio as they are the stage. Rather than simply be a rote recreation of their live show, Salem is expansive, explorative, and takes the kinds of chances that make it a compelling album. The promise of Into the Fog is that Gulley will be around for some time creating rock and roll for when you can leave the windows open, bury your foot in the accelerator, and let someone else feel the heartache while you wallow in the sunshine.
You can find out where to get Salem and hear tracks HERE.
The photographs included in this review were taken at the Garage by John Witherspoon