Longtime Birmingham observer/commenter/critic David Pelfrey has always been known for his singular approach to whatever topic is at hand. Pelfrey takes particular elements of art and culture — books, films, music, architecture, anything that captures his attention — and, through a potent combination of erudition, exposition and ample doses of sly (and dry) wit, pins them to their respective contexts in the creative universe. Here's what he has to say about The Burnells and "Room Enough."
On "Room Enough," The Burnells "fully collaborate with American popular music and its antecedents"
by david pelfrey (posted may 17, 2020)
The late film noir legend and real-guy Robert Mitchum used to tell a story about receiving a surprise call from director Howard Hawks. The director wanted Mitchum to co-star in a western with John Wayne.
“Sure,” Mitchum replied. “Send me the script.”
“Well, Bob, there’s no story,” Hawks said. “We’re just going to make a real good picture with you and Duke.”
It might be intriguing to recall that Hollywood yarn when you first listen to Room Enough.
Way back when I shared office space with [Burnells singer/guitarist/songwriter] Mark as a writer at the Birmingham city paper Black & White, he and I would find ways not to meet deadlines by having conversations that are supposed to take place while browsing record bins. One afternoon I posited that David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” always seemed instantly adaptable to a country & western treatment. Mark took a long pause, gazing at nothing in particular, and finally replied, “That’s right.”
It was not like he agreed with my mere opinion. He seemed to be verifying an objective, music-related fact of the universe that would be true even if I had never been born. That’s some insight into Mark’s relationship with music, its history, its palpable texture, and how folks who truly care about those things always carry those things with them.
“Carrying music with them” is what the Burnells were doing when they walked into a studio space to record Room Enough. I think that’s why, if we say that each member of the Burnells is collaborating with the others (and there are plenty of others in this outfit, thus the album is aptly titled), we can also say the band fully collaborates with American popular music and its antecedents. They ask listeners, almost in the same breath, to get on board a train (or hop in a limo) with Woody Guthrie, X, The Band, The Clash, and a few ol’ boys from the foothills of Texas and the deeper gorges of Appalachia. This is collaboration as metaphor, which happens when a band adopts an instantly recognizable vocabulary and begins each iteration with “Stop us if you think you’ve heard this one before.”
Put another way, in the same sense that the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See?” gently recalls The Velvet Underground’s “O Sweet Nuthin,” (that woozy version off of Loaded), the first two tracks on Room Enough make one wonder what would have happened if Dickey Betts and the Velvets ever hooked up to swap a lick or three. In that context, it’s easy to imagine the band going deep and expansive for the live presentation of many tracks on this album. I hope they do. You know, the way VU or Bob Dylan or the Allman Brothers used to say “Stop us if you think you’ve heard this one before.”
Working in the vocabulary of heritage and lore fully suits songs that reimagine elements of the Old Testament, The Book of Revelation, Baptist hymnals, and that fundamental text of American music: the gospel according to dirt roads and old railways. This leads at times to speaking in tongues; the Burnells offer a warped apocalypse of harlots who might shimmy through The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street or T. Rex’s Warrior. Speaking of the Bible, I also like the slight skronk that comes through in “Back to Jericho,” and not just because it might wink at Delaney and Bonnie.
But let’s not page through a thesaurus. It’s all on the album. Maybe the “who” and the “when” that Room Enough recalls are secondary to the act of recollection itself. Which takes us back to Kris Kristofferson, circa long ago. During his talking intro for “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” he opens by saying that he began writing about one person and the song would up being about two other people (Dennis Hopper and Johnny Cash, to be specific). Then he spends a full 30 seconds giving a nod to all the other friends that song is probably about as well. If you get why Kristofferson thinks it’s important to note this in the very recording itself, then you have some insight into the spirit of the Burnell’s latest music.
Those are all impressions, of course. This album started out being one thing and then — well, there’s no story. They just made a very good album with each other and American pop music’s collective consciousness. There’s room enough for all that.
First review calls "Room Enough" rootsy, contemporary, timely
Reviews of "Room Enough" are starting to come in, the first posted May 12 by Birmingham musician, recording engineer and communications guru Bill Ledbetter. Noting that the sounds on the album are "spread across the Americana spectrum," he calls The Burnells "an impressive collection of talented musicians [who] put an original yet raw and contemporary twist on traditional musical styles." Summing up his impressions, Ledbetter observes that, "Deep truth captured in lyrical music is a high art form not easy to pull off," and credits the band for accomplishing that feat, adding that "this cohesive set of roots music seeks to lift you into a better conscious understanding of a chaotic world."
Can't ask for much more than that. But don't take our word for it: read the full review here.