The New Amsterdams' new album, Story Like a Scar, breathes like a breeze across the prairie and shimmers like the sun on the Kansas River. Not that the band's lyricist, Matt Pryor, was consciously evoking the Kansas locale he calls home. Still, lines like, "It echoes in the hills," "midnight on a dirt road" and "a secret concealed in the wheat fields" conjure an unmistakable sense of place.
They laid Story Like a Scar down in Nashville (in six 14-hour days) with producer Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Freedy Johnston, Elvis Costello). And though the disc boasts lap steel, banjo, harmonica, stand-up bass and brushed drums, this is not country music. For lack of a more elegant term, it's roots rock.
Story is woven of a live, organic, first-take sound and a recording philosophy that embraced imperfection and the unexpected. Pryor's voice might best be described as "low lonesome"; it's not the hair-raising "high lonesome" tenor of bluegrass icons like Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, but it bears a similarly forlorn quality, made accessible to 21st-century ears by Pryor's lived-in, everyman performances.
Additional insight into this state of mind is afforded by Pryor's comments about his bandmates - guitarist-singer Dustin Kinsey, bassist Eric McCann and drummer Bill Belzer. He says of their collaboration, "We've all been carrying this around, but we needed to find each other before we could lay it down."
Pryor says his work with this band enables him to delegate some of the songcraft responsibilities, explaining: "Eric and Dustin, who both went to school for music, are really into the recording; they love building the songs. I'll listen to what they've done and just say, 'This works, that works, this doesn't work … ' Everything's open to discussion, but this method works so well that we're constantly writing. Story Like a Scar is 10 steps forward from anything I've ever done, which has everything to do with this band. We found our collective voice with this record."
The memories recede as Pryor returns to the present. "There's a small-town quality to this record," he says, going back to "A Small Crusade," which, on the surface, is about a small-town character, a man who, after his house burns down, pitches a tent on an island in the Kansas River - the "Kaw" - and lives there ever after. Pryor sings to this man: " … by the riverside what you saw/ Was salvation on the Kaw/ To free who you were before/ Find what you were looking for." But we know he's talking about himself, about finding what he was looking for, what we all are looking for, in towns of every size: Community. Family. Home. Ourselves.