PressPress Release: Switchback's new album Kanoka
By Paul Schneider
It all started about 30 years ago after a long of day of painting. Brian FitzGerald went up to the attic of the house he was staying in, picked up his guitar, and came up with a riff.
After nearly three decades of floating around in his head, Kanoka emerges May 11th as the latest release from Switchback, comprised of FitzGerald and his longtime musical partner Marty McCormack.
The boys in Switchback think of themselves as a duo who play “Celtic Soul and American Roots.” However, on Kanoka the pair have left their Irish roots behind and crafted an honest to goodness American album.
Augmented by the pedal steel work of Grammy-award winning multi-instrumentalist and producer Lloyd Maines (whose daughter Natalie is the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks) and the big-sky country harmonica work of Howard Levy (a founding member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones), Kanoka is a vagabond’s journey aboard a boxcar across the heartland of the United States.
But Switchback are not your ordinary vagabonds. Rather, FitzGerald and McCormack craft tales of pensiveness, observation, and reaction, stopping along the way in such out of the way locales as Van Tassel, Wyoming (“Van Tassel”), somewhere north of Salina, Kansas (“Pour Me”), and Boonseboro, Kentucky (“Rope as I’m Riding”).
And what of the title track “Kanoka”? Where is that? Because if you Google it, you won’t find it on any map.
“The way I see it, it’s like a state of being,” McCormack said. “It’s a way of attaining your bliss. There’s an Irish word, tir na nog , which is sort of a place where everything gels.
“The album is about that, in the sense that it takes you through a mythical timeline in life,” McCormack continued. “There are various aspects of emotion and a definite setting. We deliberately chose the high plains because there you have visions of miles.”
Kanoka is Switchback’s 15th release of a partnership that spans 27 years. FitzGerald and McCormack met in 1986 when they were chosen by Terrence “Cuz” Teahen to join his traditional Irish group. They later formed the Wailin’ Banshees, but a mutual appreciation of such American artists as Joe Ely, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Rodney Crowell eventually led the pair to leave the Banshees and form Switchback in 1993.
Turned out to be a good move. Their first album was a critical success, and Chevrolet used one of their songs in a commercial for its Blazer. Eventually they hooked up with Maines, who has produced several of their albums including The Fire That Burns, which was selected as one of Performing Songwriter Magazine’s top choices for 2003.
The duo are known not only for their unique blend of Celtic and American roots, but for their heavy touring schedule. They’ve opened for The Moody Blues, Leon Russell, Lee Greenwood, John Hartford, and Beausoleil and make over 200 appearances a year.
Album Review - Switchback's Kanoka
Review of Kanoka by Paul Schneider
Up until now, Switchback, the duo of Brian FitzGerald and Marty McCormack, has billed itself as American Roots and Celtic Soul.
Up until now, that is.
On their latest offering entitled “Kanoka,” the pair lean exclusively on the American part. One can still catch a lot of their Irish soul and influences during their live act, but “Kanoka” is American through and through.
This is a tale of travelling through the backroads of small, hardly-noticed places. For McCormack and FitzGerald, it includes stops in such locales as Van Tassel, Wyoming (population 9); Bonnesboro, an unincorporated part of Kentucky; and the title track, which exists only in the mind of the narrator: “You can’t reach it by land, by air, by sea/ It’s a one way dream on a one way team,” FitzGerald sings.
The journey begins on “Southbound Train,” where the first sound is that of, what else? - a train. Where’s it going? Where did it come from? Who cares? It’s all about the journey, and Switchback hop on, and playing the part of vagabond travelers, keep alive the stories from America’s heartland, wherever the train takes them.
Above the sound of the wheels rolling across the tracks is Lloyd Maines’ pedal steel guitar and the brilliant sad wailing of Howard Levy’s harmonica. (The theme is repeated midway through the disc on a short instrumental entitled “Midnight Crossing” sans the harmonica, and again on the album’s closer “One Way Dream”). Maines’ playing sets the tone for much of the album, punctuated at times by Levy; close your eyes while listening to the latter on “Dog Days,” and you’re transported around a campfire under a giant Wyoming night-time sky.
As diverse is the country, so are the tales woven by McCormack and FitzGerald on “Kanoka.” There’s stories of drinking (the double-entendre “Pour Me”), reflecting (“Van Tassel”), and love and all that goes with it, both good (“I’ll be Damned”) and, well, not so good (“Wrong You Can Write”).
The highlight of the album is the Rockpile-influenced “Pour Me.” McCormack channels Dave Edmunds singing about life on the road, stopping and playing and drinking in dives “1200 miles west of Chicago.” He knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t resist while rationalizing: “A little bit of Jameson’s/Never hurt anyone/And it won’t kill me.”
From there we’re taken to “Van Tassel,” the smallest of small places in Wyoming where “Highway 20 stretches out like a beggar’s hand,” and anywhere else Switchback’s train stops for the day – or night. We’re treated to testimonials about relationships from afar, as in “Wrong You Can Write” where FitzGerald sings that: “Wrong put the distance/In the room/Wrong meant trouble/For the bride and groom,” and closer to the heart, where McCormack lets down his guard in “I’ll be Damned,”: “If I let you see my scars/Will you trace them with your finger?”
Along the way, Switchback stops to marvel at the power of tornadoes (“High Plains Killers”), honor the tradition of moving by train (“Rocky Mountain Express”), salute the plains rancher (“Rope as I’m Riding”), and lament about lost love (“Bottom of the Bottle of Beer”) before ending the journey (for now) with “One Way Dream.”
It’s a fun ride. Put some belongings in a bag or knapsack, hop onboard, and enjoy the journey.
Liner Notes: Switchback's Kanoka
Ron Pen, director
John Jacob Niles Center for American Music
University of Kentucky
There is always a moment of anticipation, suspense, and joy as one tears the plastic sheath off a new CD, opens the jewel case, pops the disc out of the restraining center fingers, and slips the recording into the sliding tray of the player. It is an unconscious ritual recreation of your favorite birthday present being unwrapped-- a magical moment as living music emerges from inanimate machine. That pristine plastic disc suddenly sings in vivid aural hues. Oh sure, perhaps the suspense and joy are a little different in 2013, a little more muted, as the music is now merely a few mouse clicks and a download away with the instant gratification of iTunes. But still, the experience is pure enchantment as you and the music are conjoined.
Technology enables sound on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone almost instantly, but the personal connection to the artist becomes pale and distant without cover artwork, without liner notes, or even the comforting tactile feel of the disc and jewel case that are themselves faint echoes of the nostalgic vinyl LP experience. The CD is different, though.
The CD can be conceived as an organic whole in which all the music lives together in the same neighborhood. Each song in this community is invested with a specific role creating a narrative experience as one cut leads inevitably to the next. Like a train, there may be a “hit song” engine that drives the rest, but each car carries its own passengers and freight in which the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. The whole idea of a cloud technology digital library destroys the album concept and works to dissolve the unity of the CD. Tracks are sold for 98 cents each. Every song is an orphan. Cheap, quick, sound bytes trump carefully wrought unity.
And yet, here in your hands, is the promise of something very different. Deliciously retro in its unity, wonderfully conceived as a whole, with a music that is nurtured by the sweet scent of Midwestern soil and inextricably linked to the fascinating characters that inhabit the heartland of America, Kanoka is an astonishing ramble through the heart of Americana soul, a love story redolent of Walt Whitman’s lyrical verse.
Kanoka is unity. In fact, the fictional place name is nearly a palindrome; the album itself is a palindrome. The title track opens with the sound of a surging train wedded to the soulful whistle of Lloyd Maines’s steel guitar. The final track, “Bottom of the Bottle of Beer,” trails off like a caboose coda in the distance graced with those same train track clacks and Maines’s steel rail wails. The circle is unbroken.
Switchback is very unusual in that the band consists of only two performers in both live performance and recording situations. Marty McCormack and Brian FitzGerald have forged an identity and shared vision over a twenty-five year relationship that has enabled them to enfold others in their music as an integrated extension of themselves. The presence of musician’s musicians, Lloyd Maines on pedal slide guitar and Howard Levy on harmonica, allows Switchback to draw upon the full soundscape of American life. Drummers Jim Hines and Nick Hirka and percussionist Keith Riker inject the pulse that is the heartland heartbeat.
Levy’s harp is woven into the band’s mix on four cuts, but more importantly, there are a pair of extraordinary solo interludes that punctuate the album. The first is a jovial blues cowboy meditation on Western life that makes a seamless transition into the first sweet notes of Maines’s steel guitar that begins “Van Tassel.” The second interlude, a prelude to “Rocky Mountain Express,” dances merrily along its path to a graceful extended arpeggio that ends in a sweetly sustained final whistle tone. And then, from the distance, this is answered in the same key with the onrushing rhythm of the “Express.” This transition is a kinder, gentler nod to the scream as train whistle in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.
Maines’s pedal steel percolates through Kanoka like the Mississippi embracing the heartlands. Crying into the high lonesome American night, poured into another honky tonk round, slipping along Highway 20, the sweet sigh of a waltz as a foil to the life’s bucking bronco in “Rope as I’m Riding,” a lyrical counterpoint to the vocals in “Wrong You Can Write,” the onomatopoeia of water through sand, or a sinister swirling cyclone. There is a little Lloyd Maines melodious fairy dust sprinkled liberally throughout, imbuing the album’s diversity with unity.
Diversity and unity. The beauty of train travel is that you remain the same and your immediate surroundings remain the same, even as the scenery outside the window continually shifts. Switchback travels through the full range of American musical scenery, pausing to visit genres and musicians that have shaped our nation’s sonic history. There is more than a hint of George Jones country in “Pour Me.” “Rocky Mountain Express” rides the same rails as “Orange Blossom Special.” The specter of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is conjured by “Wrong You Can Write.” The tight vocal harmonies of “Water Through Sand” or “Bottom of the Bottle of Beer” reference the country rock sound of the Byrds and Poco. There is even a hint of U2 and Bono in the anthemic vocals of “I’ll Be Damned.” Costumes reveal more than they conceal. Though cloaked in various styles and influences, Switchback remains Switchback. Integrity and truth are enthroned in their music.
Kanoka dispels the borders dividing life from music by weaving non-musical sounds into several songs. Far more than sound effects, the iconic West is invoked with horse whinnies, timeless generations are symbolized through waves breaking on a beach, and the album’s journey is reflected in the rhythmic train sounds that open and close the recording. The thoughtful mix of sounds is emblematic of Switchback’s attention to both nuance and idea.
Kanoka surely will be characterized and marketed as Americana, but this album transcends that commercial branding formula. Kanoka is more than Americana—it is the sound of America itself.
Shades of "Rubber Soul"
Review of Ghosts of the River Folk
by Rick Minerd
Writer/ Author/ Former Broadcaster
Marty McCormack and Brian FitzGerald have created another collection of amazing songs in their latest package of musical jewels called Ghosts of the River Folk.
I was expecting their very familiar and often raucous Irish blend of folk and pure Celtic Soul, but what I found was ten songs that seem to represent an extension of this amazing duo's endless ability to be familiar as well as original.
Every piece of music these guys share with their legions of fans sounds as if they got there first, whether it is a well-known ballad or something from their impressive vault of personal creations. The music they make and share, either in live performances or on recorded disc is distinctively theirs and if you've ever heard them you know it's them when you hear it.
But this new CD sounds to me like they have reinvented another good thing. Every cut on this album is similar to the original "Switchback" sound, but to me, and maybe only to me, I can hear something very close to the British sound that changed pop music forever when it first made its way into our culture.
As bold as this sounds even to me, I hear shades of "Rubber Soul" here. A lot of Marty and Brian's music takes as much energy to listen to as it might take for them to perform it. Yet this is another pleasant surprise, a collection of songs that is as easy to hear first thing in the morning as it is as I compose this essay about it.
I am listening to it for the second time as I write, and I'm liking it more than the first time. And in addition to what I can only describe as Beatle-esque, I am reminded of many of the other British and American music that I grew up with and later played as a radio disc jockey. Yet every song sounds new, and every song is new.
I cannot call out my favorite on this one. But if Marty and Brian said,"Pick oneor we will never come back to Columbus and play for you,"I might say, "Rock Your Heart." But then I would probably say,"Wait a minute..." It would be that tough, and I remember thinking the same thing about "Rubber Soul." See for yourself.
Music Connection Magazine
New Music Critique - Switchback
Music Connection Magazine
The words “American roots & Celtic soul” only begin to describe this unusual act, whose vocal prowess is as pure as it is unique. While there is a modern folk-pop sensibility here, the trad roots of Brit and American folk clearly resonate in “The Mayfly Dance,” “Absolutely Stunning,” and “Black Mountain,” and it makes for a curious concoction, especially due to a distinct throwback aspect that lends a formality and rigidity to the performances. Still, there is no denying the stunning vocal blends that are achieved by this duo.
Kings of Indie Music
Review of Ghosts of the River Folk
by Mary Palmer
Former Director of Regional Programming for High Plains Public Radio and Avid Switchback Fan
That is NOT Switchback...oh, wait! That IS Switchback. You won't believe your ears when you hear the newest CD, "Ghosts of the River Folk". Think Beatles/Pop/Snap infused with all the wholesome goodness Switchback brings to every project. I heard there was a Beatlesque sound to the new CD and almost tossed it aside and yet, it is Switchback so I HAD to pop it in. Yes, there was Marty and Brian without a doubt but they were somehow channeling some of the sounds from my big sister's transistor radio through them. They have pulled the best of what Pop has ever had to offer with the clear, evocative and soul-stirring storytelling that we've come to expect from these kings of Indie music. Timeless tales of love and heartache woven through every song with the sharp needle of current culture. It is pure Switchback and you are going to love this latest turn they take.
Album Release: Ghosts of the River Folk
With Ghosts of the River Folk, Switchback creates a powerful tribute to the people and spirit of the upper Mississippi, their musical home. Like a ride on John Hartford's beloved Julia Belle Swain riverboat winding its way down the Mississippi River, this collection of songs takes you through the ever changing scenery and characters that make up this magical part of northeast Iowa. Recorded at the famous Kingsize Studios in Chicago, this new release features all original tunes by the award winning songwriting duo of Brian FitzGerald and Martin McCormack.
Continuing a tradition of cross-genre appeal, Switchback's 12th album is sure to attract anyone who enjoys pop-rock, alternative country or progressive folk styles. The sound can be compared to artists both classic and modern such as The Beatles, The Byrds, BoDeans, Wilco, The Jayhawks, Phish, Alejandro Escovedo, Simon & Garfunkle, The Everly Brothers, The Outlaws, The Rembrandts, The Honeydogs, Tom Petty, and The Beau Brummels.
Switchback is joined by Jim Hines, the Grammy award winning former drummer for Brian Wilson, Ellis Clark on keyboards, fiddler Paul Russell, and Grammy award winning producer Lloyd Maines on Papoose Guitar. Also contributing to this new project are acclaimed accordionist John Williams (who wrote the music for the DreamWorks motion picture, Road To Perdition), Brianne Bolin on squeeze box accordion, and Siobhan FitzGerald, Maggie FitzGerald and Mike Hagler delivering vocal harmonies.
"Every cut on this album is similar to the original ‘Switchback’ sound, but to me...I can hear something very close to the British sound that changed pop music forever when it first made it's way into our culture. As bold as this sounds even to me, I hear shades of ‘Rubber Soul’ here."
~Rick Minerd, Author/Writer/Broadcaster
“This band is one of the most innovative, rock solid and easily enjoyable groups I have ever heard. None of their tunes are alike -- they span several styles yet it all holds together with a great groove.”
~Jim Marshall, Psychologist/Radio Personality