Beth Bombara – It All Goes Up (Black Mesa Records)
One of the best albums we’ve heard all year
St. Louis musician Beth Bombara has been putting out solo records for about 16 years. Her latest album, It All Goes Up, is her finest to date. What sets it apart is that she seems to be making music with a wider palette of styles and instrumentation.
Her last effort, Evergreen (2019), was largely driven by her electric guitar. While her guitar is still there on It All Goes Up, sometimes it’s acoustic, or electric. Other songs are propelled by a jangly, 12-string-guitar or pedal steel. Still other tracks have Mellotron or Rhodes piano.
With a title like It All Goes Up, you might think it’s a real downer. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
The album opens with “Moment,” a song about pausing in this fast-paced, post-pandemic world: “can we slow down / long enough to take a Polaroid picture / and wave it around / until the moment is material” It’s both cinematic and a tad twangy; yearning, with the echoed percussion and pedal steel.
“Lonely Walls” is something all of us can relate to, being cooped up during the lockdown. Bombara sings “I’m still waiting for the sun to shine / for the world to return to / something I recognize.” Amen. The track is fueled by a gentle, funky groove, topped with a descending guitar line. The heavily-echoed guitar solo, courtesy of Sam Golden, is a welcome surprise. It seems to be coming in from a far off planet.
“Everything I Wanted” is pure power pop with its jangly electric guitars and catchy chorus. And, dig that freaked out, impassioned guitar solo in the middle (again it’s Golden showing off his chops). It sure sounds like a hit single to me. The song deals with railing against the idea that money buys happiness – that we have to be thankful for what we have right now, instead of always looking to the future.
“Get On” features a gentle melody over a 12-string electric, and I dig that soaring middle eight instrumental section that builds before dropping out (middle eights are certainly a lost songwriting art, for sure). The lyrics deal with moving on instead of wallowing in the past.
“Carry The Weight” is soulful, sparse, and warm. I love how the strings answer her vocals on the second verse. Very tasty guitar on this one. A song of reassurance of friendship.
“Curious and Free” starts with acoustic guitar and pounding toms, then in comes a fiddle, crying out. Eventually, the song becomes a pounding, percussive train, rolling down the tracks. The song ends without resolving – leaving you hanging, wanting more.
“Give Me a Reason” is totally different – a very heavy, plodding number, with distorted electric guitars, and Bombara’s double-tracked vocals. It has more in common with Black Sabbath than Americana. It could be about the volatile times we live in – “be not afraid of the darkness or the light.” Once again, the song ends without resolution.
“Electricity” starts with just acoustic guitar and vocals, but then builds into a fantastic, expansive chorus. This is where the album title comes from: “flash of red / I lose my head / and it all goes up.” It could be an explosion. But, perhaps it also means that there’s only way we can go, which is up. There’s kind of a dreamy middle section with guitar that’s really cool.
“What You Wanna Hear” has a mid-Seventies gentle feel – dig that high hat groove, and, once again, the song sort of leaves you hanging at the end.
“Fade” has a great Rhodes piano by John Calvin Abney, and heartbeat percussion. In fact it’s the heartbeat that’s the last thing we hear on the album – a reminder of humanity still carrying on despite our troubles.
I would say this is her most assured album. Nothing sounds forced. Her singing has improved over the years. And, for this to be a self-produced affair is even more impressive (it sounds especially good in headphones). Everything works. Dare I say it’s a perfect album. A blending of styles that ultimately comes out as pure Beth Bombara. —Tony Peters