by Brian J. Audette
Most bands coming off a career-defining concept album like East Cameron Folkcore’s 2015 opus Kingdom of Fear might take some time, tour a bit, and in a couple of years come back with a followup. That’s not the way ECF do things however. Not even one full year after their aforementioned third LP was released, the band boldly promised to head back into the studio and release two albums in 2016, all this amid an aggressive US and European touring schedule and a constantly fluctuating roster of supporting band members. Never to be underestimated however East Cameron Folkcore have come through. The first of their two 2016 albums took the form of the 5-song EP Fossils, a collection of old, new, and revamped acoustic tracks that dropped last month. The second is their fourth LP: the self-released Better Off.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about ECF over the course of the four LP’s and two EP’s they’ve released since 2011, it’s that every album has it own character while still being true to the band’s distinct, aggressive folk style. Their debut LP Sound and Fury is almost funerary, a wake for a lost friend. Kingdom of Fear is aggressive and progressive both musically and conceptually. Better Off again see’s the band mutating, reaching back to their folkier roots in some ways, but continuing their forward march with a heavier emphasis on horns and a pre-punk, classic rock pop sensibility. The end result is just as powerful lyrically and musically as the rest of their catalog, taking on a quality like that of Appalachian folk meets New Orleans jazz played by a mixture of Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band.
Opening with the titular “Better Off” the album leads off with an assault of horns, cello, and guitar before singer Jesse Moore lends his energetic voice to the lyrics of a tune decrying society’s less than stellar stewardship of planet Earth. “We could be better off, be better off, better off/If we cared less for money/And more just for life” Moore croons, his voice crackling with emotion and rising to a heartfelt scream by the song’s end. “Who Do We Think We Are?” follows suit thematically, both with the predominance of horns and the lyrical admonishment of human hubris in the face of nature. More steadily paced than “Better Off”’s racing beat, the track is cut in half by a searing guitar solo. “Darling What Went Wrong” rounds out the first act of this album with nothing short of a classic soul song. Jesse croons sultry and smooth, backed by April Perez Moore’s equally entrancing vocals, while half time drums, a solemn trombone, and the sparse strums of a reverb-laden guitar score their lament. It’s a torch song for the ages sung for a planet who’s “ice caps are melting” and “storms are so strong”.
Travis County Booking aka “TCB” opens the final section of the album with a more personal tune. Moore here recounts a personal story of a drunken evening, a fight, and a night spent in TCB, as angry at himself as he is at the system that burdens the “victims you’ve wronged from their right.” If there’s a track on this album that is the most signature East Cameron Folkcore tune, “TCB”’s mix of aggression, narrative, and solid folk rock composition take’s the prize. “Wilderness of War” is another lament of the modern machine. “We are all victims of our/Own mind’s torment/Cowering in the /Wilderness of War” Moore sings over a mid tempo tune. “Born to Die” closes out the album in a fashion similar to the way it started, with prominent horns and a beat that just makes me think of late 70’s early 80’s Springsteen: folksy, but rocking, and full of life. Lyrically it’s as cynical as any other tune on Better Off, but somehow it’s upbeat, taking solace in universal truth “You count my days/Well I’ll count my hours/Blessed my we’re all/Born to die”.
While it seems to be tradition for music reviewers to pan any band’s release following a watershed moment such as Kingdom of Fear, I just don’t have it in me. Yes Better Off is short for an ECF album and yes, it’s nowhere near as lofty as last year’s conceptual tour de force, but it’s still great. East Cameron Folkcore is still a band at the top of their game and Better Off is a worthy addition to an impressive catalog. When push comes to shove, I’d rather let Better Off stand on its own two legs than in the shadow of it’s forebears. This is a short, but solid release from ECF, one worthy of them and their fans and no less powerful for its brevity.
Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bjaudette.