Lewis and Clarke

Bare Bones & Branches

(Summerstep Records; 2005)

By David Greenwald | 8 April 2005

Lewis and Clark were explorers. With the endorsement of Thomas Jefferson and more than a little luck, they carved a path from one ocean to another and back again. The long, dusty journey of American folk music follows a similar trail: sweeping across decades and geography from the mountains of Appalachia to the California coast. Follow it for a while and you’ll notice forks --- from the wide road marked out by Bob Dylan and paved over by Peter, Paul and Mary and The Byrds; to tiny, unmarked paths leading up to the caves of strange, bearded hermits who go by the names Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy or Iron & Wine. Take the trail all the way to the end, and you’ll catch up with a new, unheralded expedition blazing away. Their name? Lewis & Clarke.

Ampersand and extra “e” aside, Lewis & Clarke share their namesake’s fascination with observing and recording the fruits of their travels. Their debut, Bare Bones And Branches, follows the path left by nomadic searchers like Elliott Smith and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Will Oldham, confident enough to muddy the footprints along the way. Somewhere along the line, the party (which consists of singer-guitarist Lou Rogai and his friends and family) stumbled upon the moody, atmospheric terrain rediscovered most recently by the Court And Spark and Oldham’s Ease Down the Road, and so Lewis & Clarke’s debut emerges from the forest lush and fleshed out.

Like their predecessors, Lewis & Clarke present a detailed log of their trek. Every nook and cranny of Bare Bones And Branches is inscribed with another guitar lick or effortlessly busy percussion. A Hammond organ adds texture to the title track’s picked guitars, which enter with familiar chords. “You know I will let you in,” Rogai assures with his thoughtful, unpolished voice. Falling somewhere between Smith’s longing high notes and Oldham’s idiosyncrasies, he already sings with a hint of the wavering rawness attained from too many nights on the road. The song’s coda finds him playing a vocal call-and-response with himself, one of the album’s many solo duets. He does so most harmonically on the sparse “Dead And Gone,” whose briskly strummed chords are just a whole step away from Smith’s “Angeles” (capo 3, capo 5), especially with the accompaniment of a lone organ tone. Elsewhere, “Bathtime Blues” offers a morbidly funny title for a plainspoken portrait of suicidal depression, with sympathy in metaphors: “You’re my broken record, skipping past the good parts / you’re the wound I could not heal.”

With the first leg of their voyage complete, the band has already penciled in a worthy addition to the folk music map. The songs are stretched to their fullest extents, occasionally meandering through long instrumentals as if to make sure nothing was missed along the way. Expeditions are always subject to wrong turns and missteps, but Bare Bones And Branches rarely strays. After their round trip, Lewis and Clark, explorers, returned home exhausted. For Lewis & Clarke, musicians, it sounds like they’re just getting started.