By Larry Wines

Big_Wide_Room_coverThey’re called Big Wide Room. When accomplished talents collaborate, and when they are individual artists with plenty of awards and recognitions, it’s worthy of taking notice. One had the “Album of the Decade” in the Los Angeles Times; another runs an acclaimed globe-spanning International Songwriters Retreat series; and the third got his start as music director of the New Christy Minstrels, before enjoying individual success.

Together, they’ve just made an album, Infinite Distance. It’s something special. Some of these appealing, evocative songs will get used in film soundtracks.

Plenty of CDs and even more artists court the elusive characterization of “eclectic” (however nebulous that turns out to be) in hopes of crossover airplay and broader exposure to listeners. It’s always a quest for music that resonates across divides of genre and generations; this album achieves that. It’s fresh, as young listeners like, and rich with well-developed melody lines and smart arrangements that more experienced listeners demand. Fans of nu-folk, acoustic renaissance music, and acoustic-based pop will find a gem here, and if radio supports it, music fans will go for it in a big way.

First, if the group’s name is new to you – Big Wide Room – chances are, the artists are not. The trio of Mark Davis, Brett Perkins, and David Zink have toured Europe and the U.S. West Coast as edited (one of those lower-case band names peculiar to music). That trio’s name, was, in turn, derived from a bigger collaborative of the early double-’aughts called Everything Divine, this trio plus two international award-winning filmmakers who are also musicians. (Yes, they exploited the “E.D.” abbreviation for all it was worth, while Bob Dole was hawking hard-on pills on TV.)

BIG_WIDE_ROOMBig Wide Room is now an evolved trio of artists, a fine-tuned collaborative ensemble of singer-songwriters, each bringing their diverse individual achievements and musical sensibilities. And the sum is greater than the parts. Since their individual paths have conjoined many times, there is a harmony of spirit evident here, akin to the best band-mate collaborations.

Their smart, spare songwriting proves you don’t need sappy love songs to achieve universality. Each listener will find their own esoteric and personal meaning in these tracks. The coherent arrangements, inspired phrasing and instrumentation, and superb production, combine in a first-rate album that no big label could surpass. Recorded in Copenhagen, where Perkins’ connections assembled an “A” team, the album is proof of plenty of good decisions at all levels, showcasing the talent, musicianship, and crisp, natural-sounding studio production. Record production was completed in Chico, California and Portland, Oregon. It’s not a case of too many cooks; every aspect of this album sings.

Let’s explore the album’s tracks. If only nine songs sounds minimalistic, this is all good stuff, and one song runs eight minutes. Here’s a track-by-track:

#1 Don’t Know How to Get Through brings Davis with a fine lead vocal. Driving rhythm makes it a good focus track for pop radio (provided the station isn’t addicted to electro-altered robotic fakery). There’s especially nice cello late in the track, through to the outro.

#2 Elemental is superior three-part interwoven vocals with just enough harmony to assure durable freshness. This will be a favorite with fans of late 1960s-early1970s jaunty melody groups, but don’t make that comparison for anyone younger—they’ll believe they’ve discovered something quite new here.

#3 I Can’t Hate You Now makes us ask, “Can a song be dark without being a downer?” (Answer: yes.) Plaintively delivered by all three voices, this is the post-breakup song for after you decide not to put ground glass in your ex’s sugar bowl. A superior recording, fine instrumentation, perfectly arranged for the song’s tension giving way to grudging redemption.

#4 Where Are You Goin’ brings Zink on lead vocal. There are tasty guitar riffs in this rather haunting song that deals with the uncertainty of a lot of relationships in a universal way. Anyone from 16 to 106 can identify with what’s expressed. The interesting ending, with a lot of la-lal-la’s, brings catharsis and redemption.

#5 Never Naked Enough is all three on vocals. Cozy erotic on the surface, and enjoyable at any level. But really listen to this song and you’ll discover you’ve stepped outside your comfortable self, looking back in through the window of the soul at who and what you may be accepting without the introspection necessary for deep happiness. Cello imparts splendid touches.

#6 Looking Back is really about being poised for what’s coming next, with hope and assurance, all based on what you’ve experienced – and ultimately, what that’s taught you. Zink on lead vocal, among his best ever, with prefect vocal accompaniment by Perkins and Davis. Guest Dana Cooper’s harmonica is thoroughly delightful. Take down the top and head up 101 to Santa Barbara.

#7 Common Ground is what Crosby, Stills & Nash would be singing if they had gotten together now. If the stellar harmonies here sound like an overt homage to that famous trio, that’s okay, too. This is fun and substantial. This song can go places.

#8 Triptych is the album’s “way-too-long-for-radio” track, at eight minutes. It interweaves voices in a gentle exploration and ultimately, a validation, of the choices we make to be where we are, with those we choose to be with. The strings and percussion are as much nouveau classical as folk, with a Beatles-esque touch, conjuring images of clouds appearing, the storm bringing its rains, then the promise of clear skies tomorrow. This will be on lots of iPods.

#9 Infinite Distance opens wholly in the mold of classic Lennon-McCartney, with Davis-Perkins harmonies and melodic motifs. Zink’s vocal counterpoints depart from that, while working wonderfully in the fine arrangement. This track makes you think about how many prominent others have tried to build on the magic sound of the Beatles from their heyday, without succeeding nearly so well as these guys.

In summation, there are songs here with brilliantly-crafted hooks that stay with you, whether you see this trio live or enjoy the more lushly instrumented versions of these recorded tracks. Days later, you’re trying to sing sections of Don’t Know How to Get Through, and laughing because you don’t yet know enough words to get through a shower rendition.

Buy the CD instead of the download and you can enjoy the booklet of lyrics and the package art. The covers make one big pen and ink drawing of a 1940s woody panel van in a Monument Valley-esque landscape, and the threesome walking off into the distance, carrying their guitar cases.

So many others waste package art. This one is perfect imagery for the title, Infinite Distance, both overt and subtle, musically alluding to the journey within each of us and how these songs inform that, from day trip to odyssey. These are not ham-handed love songs, though most are about relationships, enabling esoteric meaning for each listener, from gentle caress to the sigh of separation to the quest through mystery and meaning. Here, it’s a truly satisfying ride.

Upcoming CONCERTS:

Thursday, Jan. 24, 8pm - House Concert in Altadena- RSVP to sharonbbi@hotmail.com / 626-791-7953

Friday, Jan. 25, 8pm - In-store concert at The Bitemarket in Orange- For more info: matt@bitemark.com / 714-643-2483

Saturday, Jan. 26, 2pm - House Concert in Tujunga- todd@toddbanks.com / 818-951-8268

Saturday, Jan. 26, 8pm - Russ & Julie's House Concert in Oak Park- http://www.houseconcerts.us

Sunday, January 27, 2pm-House Concert in Long Beach angiepopcorn2@gmail.com

Larry Wines is editor of the Acoustic Americana Music Guide, and a past FolkWorks columnist / feature writer. He is an occasional contributor.