Florence, S.C.’s own Sequoyah (formerly known as Sequoyah Prep School) is back with new music; this fabulous little quintet put out their 5th release Spells this week. New record, modified band name, all grown up.
I first heard Sequoyah back in 2008, when I was hunting down new music. I immediately fell in love with their southern pop sound, and soon found myself at one of their shows…where I was double the age of anyone else in the room. Hey, they’re young kids, they’re going to have young fans, I thought. For the next 45 minutes, I watched them pour crazy energy into the performance on the tiny little stage at The Evening Muse. They were tight…and I was hooked. They’ve become one of my favorite bands, I adore watching them on stage, and I’ve grown quite fond of them as people. Needless to say, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Spells, which has been a loooong time coming.
In 2010, the boys went to Nashville and recorded an album with Ken Coomer from Wilco. I was stoked…Ken’s recorded people like Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and my personal favorite, Will Hoge, so I knew it was going to be good.
After recording the album, Sequoyah decided it wasn’t the direction they wanted to go in. So they came home to Florence, took some time off, and came back together to put together a whole new record. They scrapped songs, wrote new songs, and came up with Spells – a rustic homage to growing up and life in the South. The sound is throwback – organic and crunchy with handclaps and foot stomps (and even rattling bottles), ringing with organ, long slow guitar riffs, and minimal production – it literally sounds like it could have been recorded in an old Southern chapel somewhere on a roadside.
The songwriting has matured, too, with fewer songs about young love and more songs about finding out that life isn’t always easy. They’ve stayed faithful to their roots – that sense of the south pervades each song, with great imagery of cotton fields, sweaty sticky southern nights, and tobacco fields. The lyrics vacillate between longing, questioning and defiant. From the dark, soulful “Long Winded Woman” to the country roadhouse rockers “Do What I Do” and “Life Insurance” and the plaintive “Grass Grows Green” and “Mother Mary,” there’s a vulnerability. The kind of vulnerability that only comes when you start learning life lessons and realizing that you aren’t going to live forever, so you’d better start doing things that matter – heartbreak, desire, financial trouble, despair, faith.
And, as if to make a statement about how they’re really expanding the depth of their music, the record closes with a song called “Suits,” sung not by lead singer Justin Osborne, but by bass player Johnnie Matthews, who recorded his own album during the band’s hiatus over the fall and winter. It’s a number about the difficulty of choosing music as your life’s path…the hard life of being on the road in a band. A poignant way to end the album, considering what they went through to get it out.
“White vans are empty now
And you cut all the hair that you grew out
Your dream, it seems so far away
Farther than ever it seems, you say
But brother, don’t let it get you down
You still got time to turn it around
Turn it around, well just start over
If this is the end
And our ship never never comes in
If the suits don’t hear a song
If the numbers all lie
And it makes little girls cry
Well wouldn’t that be a shame.”
In a time when no one makes records anymore, where musicians make singles, it’s fabulous to hear a young band make a cohesive record that tells a bigger story. Yes, the transition to adulthood is a lot to tackle in one album, but Justin, Johnny, West, Jordan and Harrison have done it well with Spells.