Album Review: Nell & Jim Band, 'Steel'
On their 2015 album Baby Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally Band sang of their love for the open road. Now, on Steel, they’ve settled in a bit, as they look back on and pay tribute to the musical influences that have shaped them and look forward to writing innovative music that builds on these influences. Jim Kerwin (bass fiddle,) Jon Arkin (percussion,) and Rob Reich (accordion and keys) join Robinson and Nunally, rounding out the Nell & Jim Band and delivering music that ranges from jazz to bluegrass to jug band to folk.
“Shady Grove/Matty Graves” opens Steel with a breakneck race between flute and accordion before pulling back to a more somber and measured pace with Robinson and Nunally trading vocals on “Matty Graves”; the medley closes with Robinson’s jaunty flute break.
“Dime in My Pocket” scampers off with Nunally’s shimmering guitar licks that weave under and around Reich’s jaunty accordion, Arkin’s galloping drums, and Robinson’s soaring flute; Nunally’s crackling, high-lonesome vocals perfectly express the pleasure and regret of this song: the singer’s lover is gone and he’s all alone, but he’s never going to take her back again.
Steel features a beautiful version of David Grisman’s “Old and in the Way”; the song opens with a stately pace, lulling us with its transporting harmonies and Nunally’s spellbinding guitar work before rocketing off midway into a nimble and light-footed instrumental dash.
The title track opens with Nunally’s mesmerizing guitar runs before he launches into a ballad of his life; he worked as a welder on oil rigs and bridges, using his hands to make a living in his day job, then using them again at night, picking his guitar in bars and other gigs. The chorus of this poignant bluegrass burner captures the tenderness and strength in these hands: “These calloused old hands have worked the shipyard steel/they’ve played the saddest songs that you could ever feel/and dried teardrops on a cold and lonely night/knowing when to let go and when to hold on tight/these calloused old hands have filled my life.”
Nell & Jim Band’s Steel delivers sparkling harmonies, clever songwriting, rapturous and rollicking instrumentals, carrying us through the ambiguities and promises of life, love, and hope.