Petaluma roots band branches out with second CD
It’s Friday night.
As the mid-autumn sun begins to set West of Petaluma, the four members of ?local Americana-Folk band Dirty Red Barn are setting up their gear. Immediately after work, they’ve hustled over to Rosen’s 256 North, a downtown eatery that has become a hopping new Petaluma music venue. There is no stage to speak of. Instead, there’s a nice, medium-sized space near the front windows, where Dirty Red Barn’s instruments now stand at the ready, waiting for the night’s musical festivities to begin.
The band orders up a round of beers and settle in to talk about their new album, “Almost Perfect,” which officially drops on Saturday, November 23, and will be celebrated that evening with a show at The Big Easy.
Vocalist and guitarist Dave Brouillette formed Dirty Red Barn five years ago with bassist and guitarist Ben Becker. They later added local musician Sean Parnell on vocals and harmonica, then Malcolm Johnson who sings and plays drums and bass. Clearly, there is a lot of flexibility and sense of shared duty in Dirty Red Barn. Yet, as evidenced by the tunes on the new album, the band’s second, Dirty Red Barn has created a sound that is smooth and seamless.
Parnell’s vocals have a gruffer tone than Brouillette’s, which are a bit higher and smoother. This diversity is supported by outstanding backing harmonies and vocals by Becker and Johnson. The album’s first track “Together,” for example, written by Becker and sung by Parnell, showcases the strengths of the band with evocative lyrics and a gentle groove punctuated by those harmonies.
The band credits the rich, full sounds on “Almost Perfect” to a combination of practice (lots of it) and the ear of the CD’s producer Michael James, who’s worked with such acts as Hole, Jawbreaker and Chicago. Another influential contributor is the album’s engineer Jaimeson Durr, who has worked with bands like Gomez and Joe Satriani, as well as handling recording duties for most of Sammy Hagar’s recent output.
Brouillette explains that in recording the fresh tracks, James would ask for a rawer “demo” type version of the song first.
“Then we would sit down, after he listened, and he’d give me all these notes,” says Brouillette. “Things he would change or do differently. Then I would go back to the band with the notes and we’d record all over again with the notes.”
When asked if this process was meant to tighten up the band’s sound, or to save money when they actually entered the studio, Parnell says it was both.
“Michael was really good about giving us feedback because he’s made a lot of records and understands the process,” he says. “If something wasn’t right, he wasn’t afraid to make us go back and record the whole song again.”
According to Parnell, right at the start, James asked what the band was truly seeking from the CD.
“We all agreed that we wanted him to take the music we’re making, and do what he could to get the most out of it,” Parnell says.
The band finally decamped to local recording studio Prairie Sun in April to lay down the songs that would make up the album, which definitely succeeds at “getting the most out of” Dirty Red Barn’s distinctively rootsy style.
The harmonies on display in “Together” take on a more classic tone on the album’s second track, “Alone Again Tonight,” also penned by Becker and sung by Parnell, which has a similarly old timey flavor. The song opens with “We danced the 2-step/Under the oak tree/But your momma said it’s getting late/Come home please.” From the album changes styles constantly, but never strays too far from the solid harmonic foundation and acoustic-styled music established by those first two tracks.
Another standout is “You Make Me Wait.” Sung by Brouillette, the tune starts off with a nice harmonica intro by Parnell before dovetailing into an almost 50’s doo-wop sound that plays nicely off a staccato guitar riff.
The CD moves into earworm territory with “Mississippi Nights,” opening with a nice jangly acoustic guitar, intermingling with harmonica before the catchy chorus steps in to drive the tune home.
Aside from solid musicianship and harmonies, an additional strong point for the band is Parnell’s harmonica playing. The harmonica often takes a back seat in many Americana and folk bands, but Parnell’s playing is featured prominently.
He gets excellent tone from his harp, which he self-effacingly says is due to a 1940s amp he recently bought. While comparisons to John Popper of “Blues Traveler” are easy to make, Parnell is able to knock out the louder, loopier harmonica tracks while also playing a quieter, more supportive harp.
“Almost Perfect” is solid all around, suitable for dancing as well as relaxed listening. Perhaps the strongest track is the title one (with music by Becker and lyrics via Becker and Parnell), listed at number 7 on the album.
Featuring another example of nice, ambling guitar intermingling with harmonica, the tune is catchy and always lyrically clever.
For the time being, Dirty Red Barn is strictly a local band, with frequent gigs at Rosen’s 256 North, The Block and the Big Easy, but Brouillette is hoping to land on some festivals this summer.
Riding on the strength of “Almost Perfect,” don’t be surprised if see a lot more of Dirty Red Barn in the near future.