Nashville’s finest purveyors of febrile root-work psychedelia return with a dizzyingly accomplished second album that highlights an expanded band (including members of the Paperhead and Fly Golden Eagle); bigger, bolder arrangements featuring more and louder guitars, squally strings, and Steve Gunn; and road-ripened songwriting that veers between the frenetic and tender, recalling Jim Ford, the Pretty Things, the Grateful Dead, Dennis Linde, and the Byrds at their most eight-miles-fried.
When you’re a young dude in Music City, a lot can happen in a couple years. The Promised Land Sound whose debut country-rock burner Paradise of Bachelors released in 2013, when its members were all at or well below the quarter-century mark—all garage-gang vocals, ragged Telecaster licks, and buzzing Farfisas—is not the same band that recorded the ambitious, nuanced second album For Use and Delight.
Firstly, the lineup slimmed almost immediately following the first record’s release, and they toured as a ferociously efficient trio for a spell: de facto frontman Joe Scala on bass and lead vocals, his brother Evan Scala on drums and vocals, and the virtuosic Sean Thompson on guitar and occasional vocals. The current lineup likewise prominently features invaluable Nashville stalwarts Peter Stringer-Hye (The Paperhead) on additional vocals and rhythm guitar and polymath Mitch Jones (Fly Golden Eagle) on keyboards, as well as handling co-production and string arrangements on the record. That’s Peter singing on “She Takes Me There” and “Northern Country Scene,” and providing honey to Joe’s vinegar on “Through the Seasons”; his chugging rhythm parts allow Sean space to explore the stratosphere. Mitch’s complex but understated organ and electric piano parts color and thicken things throughout, providing a subtle glaze to the proceedings.
But beyond key personnel shifts, sometime over the course of the last year, after serious time spent writing and weeks on the road with Alabama Shakes and Angel Olsen, something ineffable crystallized. For Use and Delight is the album on which Promised Land Sound finds their distinctive idiom, the distilled articulation of their mutable live performances, during which songs expand and contract, guitars flicker, flame, and gutter, and the Scala Bros. rhythm section achieves a full-throttle locomotive choogle that locates the common/contested ground between J.J. Cale and Can. So the title—a reference to a line by 17th-century herbalist John Parkinson—is archly appropriate, suggesting that a recording is a vehicle of both utility and pleasure, at once a workaday, arbitrary document of a specific time and place and perhaps something much more than that, something potentially elemental, transformative, even magical, the site of “Otherworldy Pleasures.” (More literally, the herbal connotations also suggest the much more seasoned band they have become, and perhaps recreational affinities as well.)
In this case, the time and place are significant; the band recorded all the foundational tracks with engineer and co-producer Jason Meagher at his venerable Black Dirt Studio in Westtown, New York. Rural upstate New York is a long van ride from their native Nashville, a city overflowing with fine recording facilities, but the Nashville exodus was intentional and symbolic: Black Dirt happens to be the longtime studio home of the band’s friend and mentor Steve Gunn, where he recorded both Way Out Weather and Time Off with Meagher at the boards (and sometimes on bass too.) Steve sits in on the instrumental “Dialogue,” and his presence inspires the incredible guitar kineticism that animates “Golden Child” (summoning full Blue Öyster Cult biker-boogie intensity); the extended jam that ends “Within Sight”; and particularly album opener “Push and Pull (All the Time),” which elevates the unhinged energy of the band’s early material to the sublime, unfurling a helical riff and vocal melody that feel inevitable and inexorable, only to unexpectedly unravel, slow down, and open up to the rising sun at the halfway point.
If the first album resembled, as Uncut enthusiastically described it, “what the Byrds might have sounded had Gram Parsons joined the band a year or two earlier,” then For Use and Delight suggests a heavier, darker potential meeting of Jim Ford and S.F. Sorrow-era Pretty Things (without all the conceptual baggage, but retaining the razor-wire guitars and unabashed ambition.) But that’s all fantasy rock and roll gaming, and lest you think Promised Land Sound is a band that aspires to sound like the sum of their record collections, think again: the fact is that there just aren’t many other bands writing and inhabiting rock and roll songs of this scale and structural and performative sophistication. The Chiltonisms and chiaroscuro of “She Takes Me There” recall Big Star, but not so much in sound as in sentiment—the melancholy dislocation of a Southern band in a Southern city, but existing strangely out of time and pushing beyond geography. Listen to the bittersweet swagger of “Otherwordly Pleasures” or “Oppression”: despite the classic psych and pop influences, Promised Land Sound is in some essential sense a staunchly Southern band, unselfconscious classicists eager to anchor their songs in traditional forms while tearing at the edges of the vernacular.