Review: Eli August's To the Weak and the Weary
An engaging, heartfelt collection that sheds light upon dark times.
Image by: Babs Who Takes Pictures
I've always felt music bears great power. Even in the most troubling of times, it can motivate us via emotional connections and personal insight.
Eli August and the Abandoned Buildings do just that on their new album To the Weak and the Weary. A successful crowdfunding effort brought this eleven track collection into existence and now, after a winter's worth of recording and production, it's arrived.
Eli and his crew are well-known frequenters of the steampunk convention and music circuit. Their dark American folk music stands out because it's not about the brassy, fantasy tropes of steampunk. Look elsewhere for airships and Victoriana. Instead, their work focuses on the one thing universal to all good stories--science fiction, fantasy, historical, or otherwise: the study of the frail human condition.
To the Weak and the Weary is Eli's first album with a full band, and a knockout it is. His songwriting lends itself perfectly to the layered arrangements. The inflection, heart, and able acoustic guitar work of his earlier solo efforts like The Bottom of the Sea are still there, but with the Abandoned Buildings adding flesh to his music's already strong bones, the result is an even more engaging experience.
Now laid atop cello, drums, clarinet, upright bass, guitar, banjo, and glockenspiel, Eli's emotional, wistful vocal delivery feels all the more poignant. Each instrument is used with discretion, appearing as needed to add weight, but never overstaying its welcome. Female vocalist Mell Picco's adds gentle contrast to Eli's deeper tones.
Lyrically, the album has a heavy focus on broken relationships, past mistakes, and the survival of these trials. In line with Eli's solo body of work, these are not vapid feel-good songs spewing hollow platitudes and Facebook meme catchphrases. They're not the cloying pal who spouts cliches like, "There's other fish in the sea!" and "Shit happens."
To the Weak and the Weary is, instead, the good friend who may not know the right words to say, or the solution to all your troubles, but will put their arm around your shoulder to remind you, simply: you are not alone. Whatever you're feeling, chances are someone else out there has experienced it too. They survived it, and you will as well. But, for now, it's okay to not feel okay.
While this theme carries throughout the album, each song approaches the subject matter with a different tone.
The album's thumping lead track "Alone" is a joyous and eminently catchy statement against giving up. "Fool's Philosophy" gently tells of a desperate man settling for a world-weary, dispassionate woman before--suddenly--the drums crash in and the music takes a harrowing turn, as the vocals warn, "Don't lose yourself to this love." Regret ebbs and flows throughout the dynamic changes of "The Sounds of Trains" as it builds to a triple-layered vocal finale.
Musical flourishes accent the lyrics well, such as Alex's frenetic drumming on the chorus of "Rise Above" reflecting the chaos of positive personal change. Robare's clarinet takes the lead on the two most energetic tracks: "Warm" and the toe-tapping "Kind", a chipper-sounding track about losing one's faith in humanity. "Petals" wouldn't feel out of place in a country dance hall, with Eli and Mell's voices riding atop banjo and Brennan's slide guitar, searching for redemption.
Eli couldn't have selected better companions. Mike D's upright bass drives most of the songs, alternating between thumping pizzicato and haunting bowed technique. The fragile lyrics of "The Living World" and "Rise Above" are given even more gravitas by Mike L's (The Wandering Cellist) vibrato cello. Elliot's glockenspiel bells add the perfect delicate touch throughout the album, accenting the two-step drums of "Warm" and the hope of "No One Knows" . Each band member even gets their own micro solo in the hopeful, pretty "Riverbend".
"Kind" - Track #7
If there's a criticism, it's this: as someone who's familiar with Eli's past work, I know just how well he can paint a lyrical picture to compliment the emotion. While the lyrics in To the Weak and the Weary are very poetic, I miss some of the concrete "setting" details he would weave into his earlier music. They added even more gravity to the subject matter. Examples include the description in The Abandoned Buildings' namesake song off Let This House Burn Slowly or the life-at-sea tidbits in "Steady" from The Bottom of the Sea. Nonetheless, the lyrics and melodies on this new release resonate well.
This album's power comes in simple messages. Maybe all we need to endure are self-forgiveness and a chance at redemption... and maybe, sometimes, we just need someone to grant those things to us.
Perhaps the album's sentiment is best expressed in its final track, "Ghosts in the Dark". Its halting banjo echoes the message of its protagonist: those first steps forward are always hard, but they're easier with someone at your side.