Welcome return for Mediterranean Americans. Their time is now.
Time: 11 tracks /37 Minutes
When Burlap to Cashmere arrived in a big way with Anybody Out There? just before the turn of the century, they were arguably that year’s talk of the Christian music industry: something fresh and new, vibrant and talented. Word spread fast on the ground.
The preceding EP Live at the Bitter End showed them in their element, proving the word that they were something else live. There was an organic passion to this set and the extended percussion section in “Basic Instructions (Before Leaving Earth)” let their Mediterranean side run loose. After the instrumental break, in our house we joined in calling out, “Scott Barksdale on percussion!” as easily as we sang along with any chorus.
But then, on the cusp of greatness, they got whittled down and eventually split. There were no big explanations. Word on the street said that it had been a falling out, born of their Mediterranean temperaments. One music writer claimed lifestyle issues with a couple of band members. Others say that it was the result of constant touring with big names and consequent exhaustion. Others that the Squint label’s implosion and industry politics left them behind. Maybe it was a bit of each.
But Burlap to Cashmere were largely family. Singer and guitarist Steven Delopoulos and guitarist Johnny Philippidis are cousins and blood is thicker than any musical differences.
Roll the calendar forward to 2005 and Philippidis was beaten and left for dead after a road rage incident near his Brooklyn home. After a month in a coma and extensive reconstructive surgery that has left him with over a dozen titanium implants on his face, doctors were unsure about whether he would ever play guitar properly again. But with Delopoulos visiting him most weekends, and eventually daring to tickle a guitar, recovery slowly came.
This release after such a long hiatus proves Burlap’s timeless quality. As “Don’t Forget to Write” pitches its reverb-laden opening flash, the impact of its atmosphere suggests Fleet Foxes, but listeners from another generation might equally say that the harmonies specifically owe much to Simon and Garfunkel (and the whole of “Love Reclaims the Atmosphere” could sit between “Sound of Silence” and “America” without anyone noticing the joins). At the end of “Don’t Forget...”, when they rip the covers off their Greek heritage, the old them bursts back in too.
That never shows more clearly than on “Build a Wall” which is as close as they come to “Basic Instructions”. I’d love to hear a live version, because it really gets going just as it finishes.
Some hear Cat Stevens in their sound. It is not immediate – or at least, not until the low-level backing vocal appears in “Orchestrated Love Song” that rips off “Lady D’Arbanville” to the nth (as well as showing the “El Condor Pasa” side of their Simon and Garfunkel influence). Maybe it’s a nod to that shared Greek heritage.
There is a degree of fragility to Burlap's melodies. At first they seemed incomplete to me, as if they needed another month or so in the writing to get extra power to the hooks or a more definite resolution. But give it enough plays and the songs really are complete. It’s just that the memorable bits are often snatches, sound flashes and lines, rather than Starburst choruses.
On “Santorini” it is the electric guitar overlay dancing with flamenco acoustic; on “Hey Man” it’s the way that the picked riff works together with the bass drum; on “Build a Wall” it is the shouts leading to a big chord change – and so on.
Impressive as Philippidis is – and there is no hint of injury in his dextrous playing - throughout it all, Delopoulos’s voice is the signature to the band. Warm and warbly, his voice is the old friend that we longed to meet again through the hiatus. He sang the whole disc live, without overdubs.
He also wrote all the tracks and they are as refined as the new sound. We have songs about his homeland (“Santorini”), about life on the road ("LIve in a Van"); about a dying patient (“Love Reclaims the Atmosphere”) and a relative’s last words before dying (“The Other Country”).
Producer Mitchell Froom insisted on stripping everything back to leave only the organic heart of the band. That was absolutely right, and the remaining core sparkles, revealing some essential bass lines and occasional banjo. Burlap may sound similar in style to their debut, but the sound is immeasurably more sophisticated. At only 37 minutes, however, the time is too stripped back. Extending “Hey Man” and “Build a Wall” alone could push the disc past the 40-minute mark without outstaying the welcome. They could have let some of their instrumental flair unravel in places.
But these are small picky points. Burlap to Cashmere was worth waiting for. During their hiatus, the world has caught up. This album is almost addictive. Its subtle songwriting and wise, crafted production make it a real grower, the sort that satisfies for many years.