For five years, Tandy has been quietly crafting some of the finest music you’ve probably never heard. With the release of their fourth disc, The Bloodroot Transcriptions, on Yellow Slipper Records, the band has discovered a newfound force and grace. The album builds on the promises of past efforts — poetic lyrics, memorable hooks and smart, well-played arrangements — while venturing into terrain more varied than before.
In part, the new sound is tied to recent lineup changes. Since their last effort, 1999′s Lichtenstein’s Oriole, Tandy has seen the temporary departure of cellist Sibel Firat and fiddler Miss Darlene (though Firat played on half the tracks on the new record). A guitarist switch has also brought multi-instrumentalist Drew Glackin (best-known for his recent work with the Silos) to the band. Now as a four-piece, with Scott Yoder on bass and Tom McCrum on drums, Tandy has taken a more stripped-down and straight-ahead approach to its songs.
Once reserved in his estimation of Tandy’s music, lead singer-songwriter Mike Ferrio is lately proud of the band he started with McCrum. “I used to think we were good, don’t get me wrong,” Ferrio says. “But now, I know the music we’re playing can really stand up to the test.”
Tandy (named for a character in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio) has in fact been very good for some time now and has started to build a following beyond regional borders, thanks in part to a gig at South by Southwest in Austin earlier this year and a surprising surge of interest in the band among European roots-music fans. Tandy’s talents also have been noticed by fellow musicians such as Malcolm Holcombe, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and Dave Van Ronk, all of whom have made appearances on the band’s records.
At the center of the band is Ferrio — or, more to the point, his songs, which call to mind the rambling touch of Dylan, the introspection of Townes Van Zandt or Richard Buckner, and the hooks of more pop-aligned contemporaries. Ferrio claims influences from both the obscure and the popular, including the Reverend Gary Davis and Tom Petty: “In my mind ‘American Girl’ sets the bar for pop songs,” he says of the latter.
Born and raised in a farming community in upstate New York, Ferrio left home after high school when he realized that staying on the farm was taking on a life of debt. At 36, he still exudes rural authenticity, although since leaving home, he’s lived in such urban settings as Paris and Memphis, and now New York City. His songs are loaded with the imagery of his bucolic youth and steeped in sentiments of days long past: in “Pictures Of China”, he recollects: “I remember firing a Remington rifle, and driving a John Deere ‘A’/I remember running down the fence line and playing in the rain.”
A late bloomer to writing and playing music, Ferrio remembers as a child singing along to songs around the house with his mother (Gordon Lightfoot, standards and songs they made up). “It was just part of our language,” he explains.
He spent a number of years in the 1980s as a roadie for bands including the Butthole Surfers, the Saints and the Lunachicks. But even as he got closer to the process of making music, Ferrio still couldn’t see himself onstage and out in front.
During those years, Ferrio would steal away to the tour van and strum around on a guitar to help pass the slow hours. “I would make up words and songs because I didn’t have the ammunition to learn [existing] songs,” Ferrio confesses. “I couldn’t follow the chords.”
Since then, Ferrio has developed a solid but still basic mastery of his instrument, which helps explain why many Tandy songs have the curious habit of building from one place. Where a lot of popular music moves through multi-chord verses and falls into even more chord patterns at the predictably placed choruses or bridges, Tandy often adheres to a different approach. The verses tend to be longer and built with fewer chords, and the choruses can sometimes feel miles apart in a given song. This structure ends up enhancing the things that make Tandy’s music so memorable: the melodies and lyrics, the harmonies, and the masterful, almost atmospheric instrumentation.
“I like music with open spaces, but I’ve never tried to specifically do that when I write,” Ferrio says. “It’s really just a happy accident partly tied to not knowing a lot of chords and the fancy in-between stuff.”
Happy accident or not, Tandy is clearly in its own place right now. Whether it’s a result of Ferrio’s simple but beautiful songs or the natural push-and-pull of a band that’s finding its new pace, no one is making music quite like theirs.