It’s possible Celilo were aiming for an anonymous feel to this album – for certainly band name, title and cover art (a shot of bare trees and grey skies, with no photo of the band to be seen) all conspire to give little clue of what awaits inside. If the intention is to persuade you to give it a listen with no preconceptions, let’s hope that strategy works, as this is really something of a hidden gem.
Celilo are from Portland, Oregon. Celilo Falls was the nearby fishing grounds used for generations by Native Americans until flooded by the building of a dam in 1957, and Celilo lament this on the song “Wy-am”. All thirteen songs on the album are written and sung by Sloan Martin. Martin slurs many of his lyrics in a manner reminiscent of Adam Duritz of Counting Crows. And in fact, if you had to describe Celilo’s music to someone who hadn’t heard them before, a slightly lighter, countrified version of that band – think Counting Crows with pedal steel – wouldn’t be a bad approximation.
Throughout, the lyrics are poetic and evocative, but invariably indirect. Even with the help of the lyric sheet, you’ll be hard pushed to pin down exactly what some of these songs are about. Certainly they are songs that don’t yield up their meaning on first listen. So, depending on your point of view, you’ll either dismiss them as obscure or look forward to repeated listens to try to tease out further meaning.
But the songs aren’t lyric-heavy or ponderous, thanks to Martin’s gift for melody and the uniformly excellent playing of the band. “Bush Pilot” in many ways encapsulates what the band is all about. The lyrics have a poetic feel, if a little oblique, but by the time they get to the chorus, the lovely melody and swirling pedal steel will undoubtedly capture you. The next track “Piñata” is better still, probably the best on the album. Simple acoustic guitar, just Martin’s voice and a harmony vocal: A busted up piñata lying in the street, Empty of everything that once was sweet, with a delightful melodic hook guaranteed to get stuck in your head.
Celilo start a short UK tour at the end of October 2010, and are definitely worth investigating. Details in the gig guide.