That Santa Fe Channel
Looks can be deceptive. Cordovas have the rough and ready look of a bunch of prospectors from the California gold rush, but while they rock that 49er chic, there's a real sophistication to their classy take on the Americana sound. Bandleader Joe Firstman's previous experience, as musical director on NBC's late-night show Last Call with Carson Daly, has certainly stood him in good stead. Performing nightly alongside first-rate musicians, such as Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, can only create the highest of standards, and Firstman has corralled a crack troupe of musicians, capable of delivering a tune as slick and polished as any pop act, but never sounding plastic.
This is real, heartfelt roots music, never overblown but, despite its confidence, often displaying a certain fragility. Expertly captured by producer Kenneth Pattengale. opening track This Town's A Drag is a case in point. Many touring bands have written about killing time while stuck in Anytown, USA, but few manage to convey the feelings of yearning and resignation as eloquently as Cordovas. It's also one hell of an earworm. Check out the footage of them performing the track live at Toe Rag studios, when they were last in London. Selfish Loner is a tale of a charming lowlife sleaze accompanied with quicksilver slick pedal steel and angelic three-part vocal harmonies. In fact, the vocal harmonies really are key to the success of this album. Firstman insisted that all vocal parts be recorded at the same time, until the perfect take was achieved, and it pays off, embellishing every track, from the funky roots-rock of Talk to Me to the soulful Santa Fe, with a quality few acts can manage.
Of course, there are influences here, too, with a nod to the Allmans on occasion, and I had to check that I'm The One That Needs You Tonight wasn't an obscure Dylan composition I was yet to discover. The album is also infused with a world-weary tenderness, recalling Gram Parsons solo recordings, but it's really The Band and Little Feat that are the most obvious comparisons, not only in the songwriting but also the sheer quality of musicianship.
Although Cordovas eponymous debut album was released in the UK in the last couple of years, it was actually recorded six years ago, and a couple of its strongest compositions make a reappearance on That Santa Fe Channel. Standing on the Porch originally had more of a stomping beat, but here it has a skip in its step that allows it to swing and shay in a more danceable way, while Step Back Red, previously heavily indebted to The Band and still containing Robbie Robertson's DNA, has been embellished with playful jazzy elements after years of jamming on the road. Still love that original version though.
If you get a kick form seeing talented, tried and true musicians performing first class, original material with a passion and verve that ignites an enthusiastic sympathy in the audience; if you like songs to be crafted and honed, to be worth the time it takes to write them, not just to listen; and if you like your country music filtered through the musical strata of the decades, lightly wearing influences from old time mountain harmonies to classic California country-rock; if you like the sound of a band that might make you think of Little Feat, The Band, Steely Dan, even, at times, White Denim, then you need to check out Cordovas.