One of Vermont’s most prolific singer-songwriters, Bow Thayer of Bethel, has released his 35th recording “The Book of Moss,” and like several he’s released in recent years, he explores a variety of subjects and musical styles that keep Thayer’s music fresh and enigmatic.
On this 37-minute EP+ album, Thayer and his superb backing musicians set a tight beat as Thayer’s gruff vocals spill out personal and often inscrutable lyrics.
The first track, “Babel”, is a great example. The music exemplifies the concept of a tight track propelled by a strong, ultra danceable beat centered on a “swamp rock” bassline. It’s an infectious dance song. The lyrics are hard to pin down.
Thayer writes: “Imagine the sound of Babel descending; As the thunder cracked the bell; Everything that was said was broken and shattered; Forgotten as it fell. These lines sound great on paper, whether the listener can guess their meaning is an open question.
As Thayer writes in the album notes: “The genesis of this project dates back to 2017. Our drummer Jeff Berlin was recovering from a stroke, so I was looking for a more acoustic sound with Alex ‘Al’ Abraham at the double bass. We had a weekly gig which allowed us to experiment as a duo and soon local percussionist Steve Ferraris began to sit in regularly. This album was born from this atmosphere.
What followed was a musical and personal tragedy for Thayer. “We decided to take a day and record a live demo in my studio. Little did we know this would be our only chance to capture these songs with Al. He committed suicide on March 30, 2018. Work obviously stopped on the album. Grief had thrown all perspective out the window.
“But when I finally revisited the demo, I realized the tracks were pretty good, and maybe even usable. I found another session on a hard drive with Al working on alternate bass lines for the songs from the demo session and I thought…Wow, we can finish this. It seemed like a perfect coping mechanism and a much-needed testament to a lost friend.
Thayer’s estimate of the album’s seven tracks gives us a clear picture of the depth of ideas he has recorded over his more than a decade of recording. “As for the songs themselves, I have to admit they’re about as ‘Vermont’ as they come. To me, they sound like they literally grew up in the rocky ground of the Green Mountains. They contain all the trials and tribulations you encounter here, as well as a global perspective of our weird little bubble of a state.
On the second track, “Ogallala,” Thayer writes, “The shore is on fire, and I stand chin high in the center of the elemental law of everything; This is not a rodeo, the image shows a miracle of collective souls rising up against the wind; They’re lined up on the cannonball and standing and sitting with the whole world watching, and there’s great concern.
We assume this song is about the Ogallala Aquifer, a shallow aquifer surrounded by sand, silt, clay and gravel, beneath the Great Plains. How this relates to Vermont, we leave the listener to ponder.
The music in this track is full of resonator guitar and hand percussion. Again, it’s a driving track that will have you dancing.
On track three, “The Coyotes of Cape Breton,” a ballad with flute, Thayer takes a theme from The Beatles’ “A Day in The Life” of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Here he finds an obscure New York Times story and turns it into a history song. He writes: “There is too much information for our time; I try not to swallow all the stuff that gets you followed; And click and enjoy the piss of our lives.
The fourth track is the old saw “Cuckoo” with fiery drums and fiddle provided by Patrick Ross. The CD gives Thayer credit for writing this song, but that’s patently untrue. It is one of the oldest, stemming from the Anglo-Appalachian tradition. Thayer may have rearranged it, but he needs to qualify the writing credits.
Tracks five through seven are the meat of Thayer’s “Vermont” connection. “She Keeps It to Herself” is a banjo-fiddle-guitar ballad. He writes: “Mason jar falling from the water; Taste spring like a morning swallow; It couldn’t be too soon; It couldn’t be too soon.
“Rest my head in a rusty bucket; Cover myself with hemlock pins; Take some tree sap and stick my eyes shut; It’ll help me sleep in these troubled times,” begins “Latitude,” track six. It’s about the best way you can think of to get all the bad news under control. Again, there’s a lot of banjo on this track, giving it just the right amount of Vermont.
The album closes with Thayer’s nearly 10-minute opus “Fish Cop,” a song full of Vermont experience and a direct reference to Tropical Storm Irene that devastated the state. Thayer writes, “We picked our side of the Delectables spine; The fertile side for raising children; We raised our fences to keep them inside; We taught them to fight and break them again; We tore up the roads to make them better; Ignore all the warning signs of the weather; And all the wheels got out of alignment; When the muddy White River came out of retirement.
Bow Thayer is an innovator. He took acoustic instruments, including guitars, banjos, violins, as well as keyboards and various bass instruments and applied them to his very singular view of the world around him. Her approach can sometimes be confusing to her listeners and fans, but she is never boring.
“The Book of Moss” must be listened to. If you have a good helmet, put it on; there’s a lot of music here that doesn’t come out of the speakers. They will help you understand his sometimes incoherent lyrics.