When singer and guitarist Kevin Butterfield left St. Louis, he took with him a golden voice and a starring role in the Linemen, one of this town's best Americana outfits. Fortunately, Butterfield's band mates — Scott Swartz (guitars and pedal steel), Greg Lamb (bass and vocals) and John Baldus (drums) — weren't restless for too long. The trio has teamed with singer-songwriter Lacie Mangels, who immediately makes her own mark with the help of these seasoned musicians.
Where the Linemen relished the restraints of classic, heartfelt country, Prairie Rehab uses melodic, twang-burnished folk as a springboard for several strands of genteel pop music. Mangels' lilting warble is a bit reminiscent of both Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris in places, but there's an unassuming, affectless tone to her delivery that sidesteps artifice in favor of straight-ahead harmonic accuracy. As befits the principal lyricist of an album named Philology, Mangels has the vocabulary of an ACT overachiever, and she's not afraid to drop 50-cent words such as "taciturn" and "saboteurs" throughout the disc. But she knows how to mix the sound and the sense of her phrases, and it's nice to hear a songwriter with lyrics that are so, well, lyrical. The gorgeous "Up and Away (Strawberry Roan)" is ostensibly a song about a horse, but Mangels turns it into a meditation on growth, love and loss in a few brief but loaded verses. You may have to pull the lyrics sheet out to figure out how she made you tear up in such a short space — and then you may have to listen to it five times in a row.
Of course, these songs are bound to land easily with the supportive cushion of her band. Swartz's pedal steel is a vital part of the equation, and he has a knack for tying these songs together unobtrusively. The band is aided by a few local hired guns — Grace Basement's Kevin Buckley (fiddle) and the Feed's Dave Grelle (keys) add some color and depth, as does the Funky Butt Brass Band's horn section. The guest musicians step up on the standout closing track "Rosamond Oliver," a saxophone and Hammond B3-fueled slow-burner that suggests a whole host of other possibilities for the band. Not bad for a tune based on a minor character from Jane Eyre.
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