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July 2022
Vol. 21, No. 10

CD Reviews

THE INNOCENT BYSTANDERS: The Book of Life

by Ted BurkeMarch, 2022

The Innocent Bystanders are a San Diego-based troupe of roots-rockers who’ve assumed the mantle of being this area’s premier practitioners of a music that is often called Americana. To clarify, Americana is a contemporary musical approach that combines and blends many kinds of American roots-oriented genres. There is a always the threat that unrestrained eclecticism can make a flavorless goulash, but the knowing musicians, those with the fabled “big ears,” are able to craft skillfully, the plaintive, the soulful, the swinging, and the rocking from the disparate schools of folk, blues, rock, country, and soul (most definitely soul), speaking to audiences in ways commanding attention. More than that, the best of it supplies the shock of recognition: the insistent blues licks, the ethereal gospel-tinged choruses, the plaintive, scrappy vocals drawing from Appalachian and Memphis influences, which send a shiver down your spine, makes you at various times needing to laugh aloud or shed a tear for no immediate reasons. You have the feeling that you’ve just returned from a long adventure to unknown parts and met a bevy of fascinating Americans in doing so. Then the lights of the living room lights come back on and in the quiet realize you’ve been transported.
This is the magic that the best of the Innocent Bystanders creates. Comprised of vocalist Deborah Darroch, Jessica LaFave on tenor saxophone and backing vocals, Ben Nieberg overseeing acoustic guitar and vocals, Steve Semeraro on electric guitar, Donny Samporna on bass, and Steve Berenson behind the drum set. The band brings their distinct skills for the marvelously funky and frayed variety that occupies their second, The Book of Life. The tone is gritty and soulful in ways that transcends barriers and speaks plainly on matters of life on life’s terms, death, getting beaten down but getting up again, and putting one’s shoulder to the wheel again. You get this feeling of strength and resilience in the album’s opener, “No Place to Go,” tenderly offered in a Stevie Nicks-ish croon by Darroch, guitars; drums and bass lay a delicate yet sinewy weave of rhythmic momentum as the tale of hard years, travel, an uncertain fate haunting the troubled road unfolds. Darroch’s vocal delivery hasn’t a trace self-regret; this is a person making peace with their regrets and sorrows with the conviction to move onward, forward. A remarkable song about seeking in the midst of a desolate circumstances.
The mood kicks up a notch later in the record’s flow, especially with the saxophone oomph of LaFave’s tenor sax goosing the gospel/ soul-train testifying of the suitably chugging “This Train.” Steady as she goes, Nieberg proffers suitable rhythm and blues wailing on his vocal. This train might be the same conveyance that Curtis Mayfield foretold his listeners with the classic “People Get Ready,” an evocation of that same train as it pulls from the station and goes through the quizzical paces of leading a full and useful life. The Book of Life covers a broad swath of musical approaches that are lovely to behold in the effortless expressiveness the Innocent Bystanders bring to their well-wrought expanse of American styles. The concluding song, “Lost Things,” evokes Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, with a trace of the Arc Angels making this rugged ballad even more alluring than it might have been. Nieberg’s vocal takes on a husky rasp, the band swells and recedes and swells again at points in the narrative for splendid dramatic effect, and you find yourself imagining that there is a man in the center spotlight taking stock of the trajectory of his life and realizes that each trauma, heartache, birth, death, celebration, and catastrophe has all been worth the years of struggle and hard-learned truths. The song seems, to me, to be the point where one’s experience evolves from a sullied timeline of conflicting emotions to becoming wisdom, a living philosophy. The Book of Life is wonderfully unpretentious in the blessedly small-cap wisdom the songs bring us. This is rich, evocative music in a very American grain.

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