The short version: While the influences on ‘Don’t Look Down’ are almost too obvious, Damn Tall Buildings still deliver a fun, lighthearted collection of tunes.
- Favorite tracks: “Late July,” “Allison,” “Angeline’s Blue Dream,” “Evan,” “Green Grass and Wine”
- Least favorite tracks: “River Of Sin,” “Location”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: Better hold onto your hats for this album, folks.
Damn Tall Buildings is a Brooklyn-based group that formed from all four members attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music. After years of busking on street corners, refining their performance abilities through live shows and self-producing their first two albums, the band is back with their third album, Don’t Look Down, a hearty collection of tunes spanning everything from bluegrass to ragtime to jazz.
In fact, if there’s any album that’s caused certain critical faculties of mine to short-circuit and force me to fall back on instinctual reactions, it’s this album. On one hand, it’s hard to look past the obvious nods to John Hartford or Old Crow Medicine Show (particular in the melody lines), but the top-notch musicianship and pure infectiousness can’t be denied as unique traits of the band either. Even if it’s not an incredibly deep album, it’s a riotous blast of high octane, bluegrass-inspired string band music that’s too earnest to care anyway.
Compared to past albums, Don’t Look Down finds Damn Tall Buildings tightening up their sound to great degree. From melodies that trend toward warmer tones, to real basslines to define the grooves, and fantastic interplay between Avery Ballotta’s fiddle playing and Jordan Alleman’s banjo picking, there’s so many fantastic instrumental moments that define this album: the warped, atmospheric violin opening of “Late July” that quickly shifts toward a rollicking acoustic melody and ascending fiddle pickup after each chorus; “Evan,” which starts off with just percussion to define the faster tempo before slowly adding in bass and a darker banjo line to add to the uneasiness; the earthier tones of “Allison” for something warmer and country-inspired, and one of few slower moments here that lets the listener catch their breath; the jumpy, fun bass notes on “Had Too Much” which dip into theatrical flair; or even “Morning Light” or “Green Grass and Wine,” which are just frenetically awesome moments in their own right.
I’d be remiss not to mention, however, that not everything is perfect in this regard – “River Of Sin” feels lacking in the low-end, and with the heavier reliance on harmonies to sell the song, it feels like an underplayed moment here. “Words To The Song” also felt a bit choppy, and while the atmospheric tones help to establish the lead in to “Late July,” when they’re used to carry an entire track like “Location,” it sounds a bit dull.
But if there’s one subtle element to appreciate about Don’t Look Down, it’s how Damn Tall Buildings know how to convey atmosphere and write huge hooks. For a record that’s all about tempo and momentum – and make no mistake, even at 13 tracks, the fact that this album goes down as fast as it does is huge – the band shows a real focus on technical songwriting, especially with how conventionally melodic this album is. Think about “Late July,” where even if this sordid character has seen his share of hard times, he’s got to press on regardless, even if means stumbling again and again. And then that ascending fiddle pickup enters, only to crash down and repeat the process. Or take “Allison,” where even if this man has to accept his wife is a rambling spirit who will leave him only to come back eventually, he’s oddly fine with that, if only because he knows she still loves him. The tones are muted enough to reflect his pain of being used, but also warm enough to reflect a general optimism, and that manages to give it an oddly progressive tone in the vein of, say, “She Loves Me” by James McMurtry.
Of course, this brings us to the content of this album, and to be honest, it’s likely the most nondescript element here. That’s not to say it’s bad, mind you, but again, this is a record focused on strong musicianship, melodies and hooks – there comes a point when one doesn’t really give a damn what they’re saying. Still, though, even if most of these tracks feel a bit one-dimensional by referencing odes to ramblers and drifters, there’s still plenty of compelling moments here. Again, “Allison” is an easy highlight for its complex framing and payoff, and there’s a well-worn weariness to “Late July” that sets the tone for this album.
And if there’s any way to describe the general demeanor of Don’t Look Down, it’s unabashedly cheery and bright. Heck, “Had Too Much” has to be funnest recollection of a hangover I’ve ever heard, and the general consensus on all of these tracks is that, no matter the situation, these characters will be just fine in due time. Not to say that it doesn’t have consequences, like how the character in “Evan” gets scolded for his rambling ways, but again, it’s all mostly lighthearted and fun.
Yet when analyzing the vocals here, that both is and isn’t reflected here. On one hand, the harmonies here are fantastic, and even if there’s a primary vocalist for nearly every track, every member is all in on this album. Primary vocalist and guitarist Max Capistran doesn’t have the strongest emotional range, but his often stoic nature can work to his advantage at points, and the tired frustrations circling “Late July” reflect that. But if there are any points where it feels like he could loosen up a bit, if only to not sound so rigid, it’s on “Words To The Song” and “River Of Sin,” two tracks reliant on charisma that don’t really succeed.
On the other hand, even if bassist Sasha Dubyk’s theater background can lead to some performances feeling a bit overdone, she’s still got a strong sense for dramatic flair. She’s convincing putting a drifter in his place on “Evan,” for example. Where I’m not as won over is when Ballotta handles lead duties on “Loving Or Leaving” or “Location,” as his nasal, flat tone honestly drags down some otherwise solid tunes. And even if Don’t Look Down never feels like it drags on, there’s still a few cuts that feel inessential. The Bill Monroe cover of “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” is one example, and “Morning Light” is another weaker moment.
Still, what Don’t Look Down sometimes lacks in content more than makes up for it by being a smart, excellent collection of hard-charged string band tunes that shows Damn Tall Buildings further honing their sound. Considering the style, it’s hard not to hold any bluegrass-inspired band against the standards of those before them, but with a strong sense for melody, great hooks and fantastic technical songwriting, Damn Tall Buildings certainly separate themselves from the pack with this album.