We all have our own ways of coping with the isolation, privation and anxiety of this extraordinary year-plus of pandemic and political upheaval. One thing I’m seeing a lot of is a return to the comfort of our musical roots. This new one from a couple of young musicians who call themselves Taco Tapes is a superb example.
The core of Taco Tapes is Jeremy James Meyer of Oregon and Ben Walden of Idaho. To round out the Pacific Northwest trifecta, they’re joined on a couple of songs by Washington state’s Joe Hein, himself a singer and songwriter of indie country pop, who contributes a pump organ; and Alan Jones, who does some production and the engineering and adds the drone of a pedal steel somewhere. They recorded it in the fall of 2020 on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
Meyer and Walden both play many instruments: Meyer guitar, Dobro, fiddle, bass and accordion on this record, and Walden specializes in mandolin but also plays guitar and fiddle and organ and bass.
Walden says in the liner notes that he and Meyer got the idea to “invoke the spirit of Garcia and Grisman and create our version of the Pizza Tapes, ushering forth a new generation of plant-guided hippie medicine. Only problem is, I am gluten intolerant, so instead we made the Taco Tapes …”
He’s referring of course to the great late Jerry Garcia and David “Dawg” Grisman. The two of them with guitarist Tony Rice taped two nights of jam sessions at Grisman’s home in 1993, spontaneous, unrehearsed, first takes, etc. It circulated as poor fidelity bootlegs for years until Grisman finally released it on his Acoustic Disc label in 2000. It’s become legendary.
The Taco Tapes’ Trad is Rad, who knows, could become similarly legendary. The Pizza Tapes is a mix of traditional and original tunes and songs, and Trad is Rad follows suit, with mostly traditional songs, an original or two, and some choice covers.
It opens and closes strongly with a couple of traditional songs but at polar opposite ends of many spectra. The album kicks off with a real hoedown version of “Sail Away Ladies” that they’ve made their own. It’s less manic than the Holy Modal Rounders’ version but still bumps along nicely. The other bookend is a portentous and drone-filled take on the deathbed ballad “The Blackest Crow. Meyer sings it with all due pathos, and the arrangement has a killer Appalachian fiddle line, a droning accordion and long whole-bar notes on the double bass.
In between those, other traditional songs include the seriously great mandolin-led instrumental “Cold And Frosty Morning” and an even greater “Whisky For Breakfast,” which also sometimes shows up as “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” Meyer (guitar) and Walden (mandolin) swap leads on this instrumental, then on the third time through they play an intricate counterpoint. From the spelling of whisky they’re probably drinking George Dickel, Makers Mark or Old Forester, or something from Canada like my cowboy cousins do – surely nobody drinks scotch whisky for breakfast, or before it either.
The covers of modern songs contain some surprises. Like the Tom Petty (very) deep cut “Melinda.” This one’s a deeply layered recording with several guitars plus bass and fiddle, and heavy reverb on the vocals, but best of all is the killer but restrained fills on Walden’s mandolin. Then there’s Michelle Shocked’s “Black Widow” from her 1988 Short Sharp Shocked. It’s an intense song in which Time is but one of many characters, and the two sing duet vocals, playing guitar and mandolin while a steadily intensifying drone from the pump organ emphasizes the dark atmosphere.
Finally, “Wishful Thinking” is a cover of a song by New Orleans-based country rock singer songwriter Owen Cook. Meyer and Cook once lived and busked together on the streets of New Orleans, and Meyer did the art work for Cook’s self-titled 2020 album. This cover of a devastating, sad love song features absolutely gorgeous ensemble playing of guitar, mando and double bass, with the occasional drone from a pump organ. It’s possibly my favorite song on the album.
But it’ll have to duke it out with the very next track “Penny Down The Drain,” a shambling shuffle by Walden and Rosalind Bay that sounds for all the world like one of those slice-of-life songs by one of my favorite freak folkies, James Jewell.
Rounding it all out are one song by each of the two Taco Tapes guys. “Blue Tooth Skip” is an instrumental by Ben Walden in a traditional vein. This happy-go-lucky tune features guitar, Dobro and mandolin, with an occasional stop-start hitch in the melody and once in a while a dark, dissonant chord to ward off the evil eye. Meyer’s song “The Fool” is in the tradition of songs about love and booze and love for booze, and it fits in nicely with similar tales of woe by the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker and Todd Snider and Robert Earl Keen, etc., etc.
The guys in Taco Tapes know their way around traditional American music, and it shows, whether they’re cranking out an instrumental dance tune, or singing their take on an old old song, or writing one of their own. A big thanks to Taco Tapes for cranking this out to help relieve our angst and melancholia as we stumble into a new year, and to American Standard Time for tossing it to us without the usual label folderol that delays releases for months or years. Find it on Bandcamp (as a cassette, even!) and probably other platforms as of January 29.
(American Standard Time Records, 2021)