Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.
In this afternoon’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on Fugitive and the Vagabond, a five piece folk outfit from Brisbane. Their debut album is now available, an endeavor entitled ‘Novella.’ Fronted by the up and coming songwriter Jordan Merrick, the band has received some notable acclaim in the underground and indie communities for their new release. Let’s dig into it and see if it’s worth having in your music collection this winter…
Before delving into the music on ‘Novella,’ I do want to address a few vital items. First and foremost, I received this album as uncompressed files. The production is fantastic, so I’d recommend picking it up on Bandcamp if you’re inclined to purchase it. That way, you can similarly enjoy the record in its uncompressed bliss. Second, the illustrated lyric booklet is vital to the release, I’d argue, so have it handy when you dig in.
‘You Got Him,’ the opening of the album, sets the stage as the vagabond muses about a woman that he lost. She has a new man, it would seem, and there’s an inherently melancholy approach to the tune because of this. The style in which Merrick and company approach folk is fascinating; it’s very raw and emotional. Judging by the hiss and warm sound of the acoustics, it sounds like the album may have been recorded analog, too.
The artwork in the aforementioned booklet is like a series of depictions of Tom Waits drinking bourbon and smoking in empty bars. It’s gorgeous artwork, and it illustrates the ‘vagabond’ so incredibly well. ‘Talkin’ City Blues’ further fleshes out the personality of the character. “Drink up your liquor, let me sing you some Bobby D.,” Merrick croons on the track.
Speaking of Bobby D., tracks on ‘Novella’ are reminiscent of some of Nobel Laureate's work, particularly his late in life efforts. ‘Pitiful Blues’ sounds like a track right off of 1989’s ‘Oh Mercy’ or 2006’s ‘Modern Times.’ Merrick has perfectly captured a gritty Americana vibe that embraces that dust-bowl era sound that Dylan has explored so thoroughly in his later years.
‘My Girlfriend,’ the first song on the album that isn’t very destitute, definitely has an intriguing blues aura to it. The electric guitar performance is particularly excellent, and it’s a perfect segue into the album’s best tune, ‘Queen of Versailles.’ The lyricism of ‘Versailles’ is absolutely lovely, and Merrick is complimented well by the minimalist performances.
Of all the tracks on ‘Novella,’ however, there are few with the personality and spunk of ‘Dressed In Gold,’ a track that walks a bizarre line between doowop and folk rock. If Ben E. King had been an edgy folk rocker, ‘Dressed In Gold’ may have been a song he would have performed.
If ever there was a song that screamed, “I was listening to Bob Dylan when I wrote this,” it would be ‘Reality Blues.’ It’s an excellent track, but is very, very eerily reminiscent of ‘Tombstone Blues.’ The tempo and song structure are very similar, the composition uses a nearly identical electric guitar riff, and there’s even characters and situations like Jack the Ripper which also appear in ‘Tombstone Blues.’ One can’t help wonder if ‘Reality Blues’ was written to intentionally mimic ‘Tombstone Blues,' perhaps as an homage.
‘Lighter & Note’ aligns beautifully with ‘Queen of Versailles’ as another one of Fugitive and the Vagabond’s best simplistic folk efforts. ‘The Wild’ highlights the band’s softer side even further, offering a particularly stunning folk ballad based within the characters of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Even as one of the album’s longest tracks, ‘The Wild’ does a superb job of capturing some of Merrick’s best songwriting.
The finale of the album, ‘Time Travelin’ Blues,’ has a bit of a ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ vibe to it. (Though it’s not eerily similar to a Dylan tune like ‘Reality Blues.’) The influence is clear, however, especially with the thick, methodical piano rhythm lead. It’s a fantastic finale, and one of the best produced tunes on the album. In fact, it’s very much worth mentioning that the four guys backing Merrick are spectacularly good. ‘Novella’ wouldn’t be what it is without them.
‘Novella’ is undoubtedly one of the most fully realized debuts I’ve ever seen in the independent scene. It’s an excellent album with remarkably few missteps. (Perhaps with the exception of getting a bit too Dylanesque at times.) It’s not often that an indie band has an album of this length as a debut that actually feels justified in its length. The entirety of ‘Novella’ is worth having in your collection, and it’s indicative of a band to keep close tabs on moving forward.