The three piece Big Tribe has a much wider creative and collaborative base than many outfits. The core three of singer/songwriter Peter Panyon, vocalist Bonnie Eyler, and Joe Heutte are unafraid to divvy up the artistic pie with numerous guests – thirty-two top flight musicians have lent their talents to the band’s recordings over the course of their two released albums. The latest and second full length release from the band, In This Together, solidifies the achievement of their first From the Fringes while continuing to stoke the creative spark heard on that eleven song debut. The dozen songs on their new album touch on a number of musical approaches and take a number of interesting, if not entirely successful, detours throughout the course of the album without the band ever completely losing its way. There’s a little rock, folk, and pop scattered throughout this release, sometimes all in the same song, and a seriousness of intent Big Tribe wisely shakes up with a dollop of humor at key points.
The sound of a train whistle opens In This Together. “Martha” has an intense lyrical bent that’s hard to escape – the suggestion of impending catastrophe colors every line. Panyon’s vocals have a rustic, intimate quality despite the fact he clearly doesn’t possess a straight-ahead popular music voice orhas much in the way of vocal range. The lyrical content is a bit crouched in symbolism, but a careful reading of the content reveals multiple possible interpretations. There’s a much different musical mood at work on the album’s nominal title track, “All in This Together”. Vocal harmonies play a much bigger role on this song than the first and the electric guitar recedes in favor of a much more commercial sound more reliant on singing than any overt musical muscle. There’s some similar lyrical themes underlying “The Final Boat Out” and the guitar work returns on this track in a big way. Panyon’s vocal has a little more grit than the opener, but still strikes the same idiosyncratic note that sets “Martha” apart from a lot of work in popular music. Low key instrumentation drives “I Want to Be With You”, but the harmony vocals play an equally important role in its success. Big Tribe excels most with these sorts of songs – they have an easy going sonic demeanor that tempers the often serious lyrical concerns.
“How the Mind Wanders” is a tasteful vocal tour de force from Bonnie Eyler and, overall, one of the album’s finest moments. This is a love song for adults chronicling the countless vagaries and compromises that characterize our desires to romantically connect with someone. There’s a bit of musical experimentation at the heart of “The Cat Song” – it’s easy to hear the relish Big Tribe takes in tweaking our expectations about musical and melodic textures. Some of that same willingness to tinker with the audience’s expectations carries over into “July Carol”, the album’s first single. Big Tribe’s penchant for incorporating surprising instrumentation into their music finds particularly imaginative expression here and Eyler, specifically, excels in this musical landscape. The use of choir voices is effective.
The album’s penultimate track, “Muddy Creek”, visits some formulaic aspects of the love song nestled in pseudo-poetic language, but the musical arrangement and vocals redeem the familiar and give it the same signature spin defining the earlier songs. Big Tribe, despite their low mainstream visibility, occupies a very exclusive niche in the musical world. In This Together manifests many influences and they are seamlessly joined together to fashion a distinctive approach quite unlike any other act working in popular music today.