Unlocked: The Key’s review of Joe D’Amico’s A Short Time’s A Long Time

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What does an eleven-minute folk song sound like, anyway?

Easy answer: Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” And that song has so many words upon words, verses upon verses – the fact that Dylan could keep it from collapsing under its own complexity is, to this day some 38 years down the road, remarkable.

But what of the musician who wants to stretch out, but doesn’t want to do it with pure verbage? Joe D’Amico of West Chester folk ensemble Mason Porter  found himself this quandary. He loves playing mandolin-led bluegrass music, and continues to do so, but as a songwriter had more expansive goals.

D’Amico’s eleven-minute song is called “Imagine My Surprise – Mother, Mother – Good Morning Child.” It appears on his latest LP, A Short Time’s A Long Time, which The Key is featuring this week in its Unlocked series. And it’s not folk in the slightest. The song is dramatic and swelling, with layers of piano and guitar that build on top of galloping drums, burst with bright vocal harmonies and then break off into lengthy instrumental passages. This centerpiece of his record is actually a merging of three distinct song-ideas – think of it as his “Golden Slumbers / Carry The Weight / The End” – but done with a prog-rock flair.

This moment is just one of the surprises D’Amico has in store on his third solo outing. As we noted yesterday, he’s used his solo albums over the past few years as a place to explore new sounds, from the ethereal Americana of 2011′s Asleep in my Shoes to the poppy variety show he has in store this time.

“Up Up And Away” kicks the set off with glockenspiel chimes, a rich vocal and airy harmonies – it’s very reminiscent of his scene contemporaries The Great Unknown – but as the set moves onward, plunking guitar lines and other layers enter. At the halfway point, the song slams into a punchy, rhythmic electric guitar overdrive. For certain, we’ve never heard D’Amico rock this hard, and it’s almost a shame he lets it drop away so soon.

“Where Does The Time Go” brings us into the Beatles-esque pop that makes up the album’s first half – its guitar lead a nod to “Getting Better.” Down the way a bit, “I Need Time” hints at the pure volume of the opening cut but settles into a boogie swing, something drawn a bit from The Band. “Face of the Stranger” brings the energy down a touch, but builds on evocative synthesizer textures on the verse and adds some twang on the chorus.

After the middle trifecta, the album changes tone: “When Easy Was Easy” is a rockabilly song slowed down to a introspective crawl, D’Amico’s instrumental phrasing both yearning and nervy. He sings about the changes and complexities that come with time: “It’s not gonna be the way it was before.” And that’s a moment of truth right there – nothing can stay pure and sacred and thrilling forever, and perhaps that’s the point of his increasingly more adventurous musical excursions.

If A Short Time’s A Long Time has a shortcoming, it’s that D’Amico could chase this path even further if he wanted to, but instead he keeps it grounded. The production is clear and crystalline, as we’ve come to expect from his solo work and Mason Porter’s, and his singing is reliably warm and melodic. These are both undeniably positive traits, but they leaves us wondering what Joe D’Amico unrestrained might mean.

While we ponder that, however, we’ve got an album to dig into that presents D’Amico as an artist with a broad vision, but also one who can also craft music with broad appeal.

A Short Time’s A Long Time is the featured album in this week’s edition of Unlocked; download the spotlighted single “Where Does The Time Go” in yesterday’s post, and check back later in the week for interviews, video and more.

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