Sad notes from middle America

The Payroll Union – Your Obedient Servant

Stream – ‘General James Wolfe’

The Payroll Union (formerly known as Pete David & The Payroll Union) are back, a shy 5 months since their last EP debuted at The White Lion. Now a three piece, they embrace a darker sound. Perhaps less sparse and more succinct, these six songs are a visceral reminder of how story and character oriented music can pack an emotional punch without being boring or insular.

Your obedient servant is pieced by 6 tales set during those times in American history (circa 19th century) that make for a cracking film (see: The conspirator). More specific subjects are: assassins, lowlifes, bloodthirsty generals, betrayal, the slave trade and the secrets we all carry to our graves.

‘Jake the Pistol’ starts the EP, first with a few very moody notes and then with an almost happy mood. The lyrics, however, are everything but joyful.  The song is about John Wilkes Booth, and in true Payroll Union tradition, historical facts set the scene for a tale to be told. This modus operandi is what makes all these Americana songs take a step above: they have a tale to tell, which rewards history buffs without alienating the non-enthusiast.

‘Julia died of cholera’ is a brutal song, easily the one that clenched my attention on the first spin. Even if I heard most of these songs before live, the one that captures the energy and grit that pack The Payroll Union in any live gig is this one. The bassline, half dancey, all powerful. The drumming, leading towards something. The lyrics, full of emotion. “Julie died of cholera in 1833 / she had two successors but neither fit for me / The first, she was a heretic so I cast her aside / The second I feared for infidelity and lies”. A powerful, strong lamentation, just what you would think a man who killed a chieftain (R.I.P. Tecumseh) and used it for its political gain while still weeping for a wife long gone would feel on the twilight years of his life.

Although the band is now a trio, they do relish into the freedom that recorded media can give against the constraints that a live setting could yield. This is true in ‘1826’, a song that has little details that add to the mix: a bit of melodica, a heavily distorted organ and even a piece of wood being broken are all thrown in and mixed in a subtle way, richening an already good song.

So far, three songs, all with a fast pace, setting up the plot towards a slower, smouldering second half. ‘Old blossom tree’ is probably the darkest (and longest) moment in Your obedient servant. Never slowing to a grind, it is the stark point that needs something lighter to liven up the spirits. Thankfully, that “something” is ‘Emily’ (which has a brand new video) a happy, catchy song. Again, lyrics are moody (but then again, American history is full of sad stories) but the music softens the blow.

The moment of respite does not last, as the stark ‘General James Wolfe’ closes the EP. We’ve mentioned some of the historical setting of this song before, suffice to say, it involves war and its consequences, all told in a very poetic way and held together by the strong muscles of bass and drums.

Your obedient servant follows some of the ideas presented by the band before, but with a more tighter pace. Add to that the elements of well-thought lyrics, an interesting musical base chock-full of creativity and you’ve have a keeper of an EP. The subject matter is tragic most of the time, but it fits with the mood of decay that comes with the Autumn season. Heck, it goes well with the introspective that comes with the end of the year’s self-assessment we all do. Like they say: those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

Words: Sam

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