“In Deference To A Broken Back” starts with the genteel strains of a string quartet and a floating operatic aria – for 25 seconds. It then turns into a highly mannered, plucked string ditty about death and going up to Heaven to be with Jesus. It’s a deftly executed wrong-footing of the listener. Occasional misdirection, folk sounds and morbid wit all in just over one minute from opening song 'Hospital' – but it’s a pretty good summary for the debut album from The Daredevil Christopher Wright.
The misdirection even starts with the name. The Daredevil Christopher Wright is a band not a solo artist – made up of brothers Jon and Jason Sunde plus Jesse Edgington, all of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The album is mixed by friend and fellow Wisconsin resident Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver. But don’t take that as a clue as to the sound of the record. The trio blend folk-rock and three-part harmonies with mordant lyricism and wit, all delivered in a measured and (mainly) sedate fashion.
The title and inspiration for the record come from Jason's struggle with a back injury. But the album is no Jason Pierce style meditation on the writer’s medical conditions. Instead it is a loose-leaf collection of stories and domestic dramas told with a lightness of touch and a restless scatter-bag of styles. The album at times reminds me of Clem Snide at their most acoustic and folksy or the quieter and more vaudevillian end of The Low Anthem – but The Daredevil Christopher Wright never keep things predictable, even in the same song. ‘A Conversation About Cancer’ starts as a jaunty gallop with cheery harmonies and delicate skiffle-beat (“Heaven is the place where we’re going.. no-one will be sick / no-one will be able to inflict / all the things we exist on, conflict on “) – before bringing in the crunchy countrified indie-rock guitar meltdown of The Broken Family Band and darker lyrics (“disease strips my bones”). ‘Bury You Alive’ gives another variation on the light/dark combination: a tale of murder and enforced entombment turned into a sweet serenade with folksy guitar strum, flute and an amiable shuffling beat.
As their fictional eponymous hero continually surprises and thrills his audience (“he’s the guy driving cars off cliffs / Taking trips into lions’ dens / To teach them how to dance”), so the band keep you on your toes just when you think you’ve got a handle on them. Including the eleventh and final track ‘Stewardess’ – an achingly tender love song sung by a dreaming would-be playwright to his girlfriend who plans to work for the airlines. There’s a hint of cynicism, of dreams that will remain unfilled but for the most part this is an emotionally direct and genuinely touching finale.
If Bon Iver is the sound of wintry seclusion, The Daredevil Christopher Wright is a sunny Spring day walk with friends: frequently sunny, often changeable, always agreeable. I don’t think that The Daredevil Christopher Wright are going to be this year’s The Low Anthem cross-over success sadly – they are a bit too sharp in all senses of the word for that. But this is an engaging and lovingly played album that will find a fond spot in record collection – somewhere between “Get Lonely” by The Mountain Goats and the Broken Family Band’s “Jesus Songs”. A bitter-sweet gem.
And if you want more of The Daredevil Christopher Wright: there are two Daytrotter sessions from 2009 and 2008 available to download. And the band will be playing this year's End of the Road Festival.