A little, but not too much, “back story” is probably in order to properly understand what Rookin aim for and accomplish with their single “If I Didn’t Know You By Now”. The first single from their soon to drop debut album Unionism is a single track from a quasi-conceptual work spanning much of American history in a very human fashion, focusing on individual stories rather than making sweeping pronouncements, and is the next step in a project that began, initially, as a college class project on the American Civil War. The five friends forming the band found themselves engaged on a much deeper level with the subject matter and the band, named after a pseudo-mythical Louisiana fish, has developed at an exponential rate since its birth. The evidence of that development is apparent throughout the entirety of this single. Rarely has a debut sounded so well rounded and fully realized.
The music definitely embodies Americana music at its finest without ever feeling imitative. There is a slight presence of keyboards in the track, but Rookin uses the instrument like a painter might – just to provide another dash of color to an already vivid listening experience. The lyrical acoustic guitar is joined, as well, by haunting strands of steel guitar woven into its fabric and the drumming strikes a tasteful note while still tethering the track to earth. A lot of bands working in this vein merely mimic – their reverential approach to traditional music is akin to those who pin beautiful butterflies under glass rather than allowing their imagination to roam free and use the form in a way reflecting their own experiences and ambitions. Rookin, on the other hand, understands the value of dynamics and manages, quite impressively, to couple their traditional sound with a thoroughly modern tinge reflective of the present rather than beholden to the past.
The lyrics are straight forward, but possess a poetic veneer that’s never overwrought. The emotional affecting tenor of the song’s writing got under my skin from the first and only deepened as the song progressed. This is a song, despite any conceptual conceits the band might harbor, that can work in any setting and stands as an eminently relatable example of song craft. These are words pulled up from somewhere within the songwriter’s heart and their sincerity is unquestionable; moreover, there’s no self-indulgence to be found in any of its lines and the on point choice of language makes it a track you can revisit time after time.
The vocal is the song’s crowning jewel. It’s singing that feels every nuance of the words and their implications without ever lapsing into theatricality and the bridge, in particular, ratchets up the emotional stakes with the arrangement matching it step for step along the way. The vocal, likewise, is obviously tailored to work in close quarters with the music rather than being juxtaposed against the instrumentation – it isn’t a question of the singing mimicking the song’s melodic trajectory but, instead, working sympathetically with it for a pleasing, unified effect. Rookin’s debut will certainly be one of the most important Americana-themed releases in recent memory if the remainder of the album proves to be as potent as what we hear with this number.