Victor D. Infante at The Telegram wrote a nice article about Phantom Train. Check it out here.
When looking back at the bulk of music put forward by local artists last year, one album stands out as an easy to overlook gem: “Phantom Train,” by The Marshall Pass. This album — released online by Duncan Arsenault (of Big Eyed Rabbit and The Curtain Society, among others) and Craig Rawding (of The Delta Generators) — is a moody, sometimes gritty collection of songs which, according to a note on the band’s Bandcamp page, were originally written for the band Pistol Whipped, which Arsenault played in with late local music favorite Scott Ricciuti.
But intended destinations aside, Arsenault and Rawding make a formidable team here, and the result is some gorgeous, melancholy music that’s obviously informed by blues, without being totally slavish to the genre. The songs linger on lovers leaving, on defeat in the face of debt, on the thousand mundane things that we’ve sung about for centuries, the myriad tiny things that seem so common but which, ultimately, become the things that mean the most to us. But amid the heartbreak, Rawding and Arsenault give us moments of grace, of entwined defiance and acceptance, casting the whole thing in a delicate light, finding the achingly human moments buried within.
And like the songs’ own histories, there’s a constant, bittersweet sense of detours, of people not arriving where they intended. “When your blood red sky is the same as mine/I will finally rest in peace,” signs Rawding on the album’s opener, “Abilene.” “I’m at the end of my rope and you don’t care/left me hanging, swing in the air.” Here, to the backdrop of a classic, bluesy Americana music, Rawding’s rich voice lingers on someone gone far away. There’s nothing new or cutting edge here, but the execution is so spot on that the simple song glistens.
The theme expands on “Blue and Gray,” with its borrowed Civil War symbolism reflecting the splinter in a relationship: “She had a reason but it changes every season/She had a reason and I hope she finds her color someday/Between the blue and gray.” It’s difficult to draw parallels between love’s end and the stunning horror of war, but here, they pull it off, mostly by keeping a light lyrical hand and not hammering the metaphor too deeply. The music is jangley and spare, the sound of an empty home.
Rawding’s voice is terribly well-suited to these songs, the way he can convey more complex emotions beyond mere heartbreak or anger. There’s a bitterness on “Blue and Gray,” a sense of an extremely begrudging acceptance. But it’s an acceptance, nonetheless, and he has a way of letting the emotion carry from sung note to silence. That’s an enormously difficult trick, one that puts the lie to the idea that this is, in any way, “simple” music.
What’s also interesting, lyrically, is that the music feels thematic from beginning to end, even as the songs’ narratives range wildly. For instance, while “Blue and Gray” keeps its feet firmly planted in American roots, the lovely “California Blue” presents a thoroughly modern picture — a couple separated by work, as the song’s persona touches down in an airplane, landing in California, where his lover is recording for an album. The sadness in the song is palpable, even if only obliquely addressed. The distance between the pair becomes obvious, even as the persona is physically crossing it.
It’s this emotional undercurrent that lends the album its strength, a power that translates seamlessly when it switches from romantic loss to financial ruin — both of which are, after all, forms of utter heartbreak. On the desolate “Default Line,” the pair step up the tempo a tad, but without losing any vigor or passion: “The race has been run/I don’t know who won/but I know I’m not payin’ the mortgage anymore.”
Everything comes to a head on the album’s penultimate song, “Stranded in Perdition,” where the album’s country roots and timeless sorrow condense to a tangible point. “You don’t get rewarded,” signs Rawding, “for being your own man/Although I can’t afford it/I’ve bitten all the hands/that ever tried to feed me/or shield me from the cold/Right now I’m starving/for a woman’s hand to hold/’cause I’m stranded in perdition/and I’m sure to be found/When I’m out of ammunition/they will gun me down.”
This is the singer as gunfighter, and whether intended as unrelated narratives or as a single arc, it’s hard not to roll the desperate grief of the album’s preceding songs into this one musical last stand. That this song allows the persona to own his own failures and flaws is remarkable, but that grim acceptance is no less devastating. It’s hard to listen to this song and not be gutted.
That the album ends on a song called “Redemption Hill” is fitting, but on the whole, this is a collection of songs that doesn’t need redeeming. This is songwriting at its most brutally honest, performed with restraint and fire by two masters of their craft.