Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band
Horses in the Sky
Horses in the Sky is the Silver Mt. Zion release where the bandleader Efrim’s vocals feel appropriately welcome. On the band’s most recent releases, his tuneless howl has been a minor distraction at best and a sonic millstone at worst. Granted, even in its most grating moments, his voice had heart; but it’s a godsend that he’s found some semblance of melody.
The band rises to Efrim’s new vocal capability beautifully, dropping much of the pall and gloom of their Godspeed roots for a new regional folk turn. The emphasis on vocals leads the group to a fresher approach to songwriting, creating movements within songs that are lead, more often than not, by choral vocals. This is used to best effect on “Mountains Made of Steam” and the ancient balladeer-inspired title track. There’s almost a pagan/religious quality to these tracks, with voices springing out of nothing, imbued with fiery spirit.
As good as these songs are, the album’s middle is weighed down with underdeveloped material and marginally reworked ideas. “Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns” is the low point, with lyrics that are either laughable or unwieldy. The song’s nearly two minute coda of “Teddy Roosevelt’s Guns!” doesn’t stand as an invocation of anything, especially coming after lyrics concerned with Efrim’s personal relationship with his Canadian heritage. “Hang On To Each Other” fares a little better, but doesn’t rise above an interesting excercise in complex vocal melodies. The band saves itself on the final offering, “Ring Them Bells (Freedom Has Come and Gone),” which begins with an uncharacteristic jazzy swagger before ebbing out in a somber, reflective aftermath. Efrim turns in a chilling lyric, beginning the song with “Imagine the view from a helicopter gunship.” This track and the superb opening song, “God Bless Our Dead Marines,” provide the album with stellar bookends. Truth be told, though, this disc would be worth the asking price for “Marines” alone. It mixes the surreal with the concrete, earthly sounds with those of heaven and hell, culminating with a heartrending coda: “when the world is sick can no one be well?/but I dreamt we were so beautiful and strong.” It’s by far the most moving song I’ve heard so far this year.