The New Gentlemen’s Shuffle‘s melodic folk-pop opener, “Bloodhound,” is built upon beautiful male/female vocal harmonies and the rousingly precise picking of an acoustic guitar. The tune is six minutes of mournful folk bliss – a propitious beginning to this impressive debut from Timber. The sad, somber, mid-tempo folk of the next three songs are more of a deep breath than a lull, and the vocal harmonies and perfect guitar work graciously persist. Also quickly established is astute production that keeps the instruments sounding alive: present, and minimally mediated – especially the guitar, which is always picked and never strummed.
As with most folk music, it’s the subtler things that count. The whining Wurlitzer that winds through the second half of “Bloodhound” is a small effort that plays a big role in setting the song’s mood. A bass solo leads “Reckoning” to fade out, summoning the spirit of jazz in an odd, yet pleasing sort of way. Like the opener, “Classical” rides a quicker tempo, but the chiming of the 12-string solo in the center of the song is what’s left behind. “New Gentlemen’s Shuffle” stands out as a finely played country shuffle, but is remembered for its running background banjo, soulful vocal harmonies, and wispy trumpet.
The only cut that fails here is “Showtune” (mp3). Its vocals follow the exact same melody from chorus to verse to chorus to verse for five interminable minutes. The song is lazy and annoying, especially on such an idyllic album. But it would be a shame to dwell on a negative among positives.
“Now to the country I go / Just to take it slow,” from closer “To the Country,” could be the album’s motto – except as with most works of art, dualities confound such easy conclusions. At once vintage and contemporary, raw and sophisticated, Woody Guthrie and Mason Jennings, the record’s three best songs – “Bloodhound,” “New Gentleman’s Shuffle,” and “To the Country” – shape up as fine examples of modern Western folk music. No matter what they do in the future, Timber are already a band worth hearing.