The fact that I listened to Shane Williams’ and Warren Bazemore’s new 10-track Finnegan Bell project, “I Was Gone,” in its entirety, multiple times, on a cold, rainy day was fortuitous. The entire album makes for perfect listening on rainy days or really almost anytime conducive to an uninterrupted listening experience, and even a little introspection.
Though throwing a party to celebrate its release at the Dead Dog Saloon on May 18, much of the Kickstarter-funded “I Was Gone” is not necessarily party music; this is probably not the project you want to play on your boombox during a volleyball game at the beach. It feels more important than that. It’s smart music for thoughtful people who can take a moment to really listen, even privately, and take in the whole of it; in much the same way you might enjoy a novel or a work of art and ponder their deeper insights.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few upbeat, all out rockers; “For A Dying Man,” and “Wide Open,” stand up against any modern rock tracks. But even simple love songs, “Wait For You,” and “Carolina Line” are far more complex than standard boy-meets-girl fare. “Pieces,” has an almost urban flair in the vocalization. The lyric “What you got, is not a lot. Girl, yeah, you want me back” is sung over an understated backbeat in a repeating chorus. Then come the horn parts, military drums, and vocal scatting building to a crescendo, before relaxing back to its opening soft touch. Each and every track could play behind the closing credits of any modern cinematic drama.
Like the pair’s live shows, this is a project often grounded by acoustic guitars. “Just Pretending,” for example, is a single voice and single guitar. But the collection is also full of atmospheric, haunting, reverb-rich production elements, including horns, strings, pedal steel guitar (courtesy of local picker Dean Black), electric guitars, light percussion and full drum kits. This instrumentation is not usually present at a live Finnegan Bell show, though the May 18 release party will feature a full band. The high production values of the release are fused with the serious songwriting power of Williams and Bazemore. The pair’s dynamic guitar playing shines through, and the spot-on harmonizing is reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel, with Simon-esque lyrics to match.
While Williams handles most of the lead vocals, and has a glass-smooth tenor voice, Bazemore’s perfectly blended harmonies always fit, usually riding snugly just underneath the melody, as opposed to on top. This creates a seamless, earthy and beautiful vocal blend; Rascal Flatts without all the nonsense.
A mix of styles and sounds, “I Was Gone” blends roots rock and singer-songwriter sensibilities with alt-rock and Americana instrumentation into something completely original. Finnegan Bell takes the listener from quiet contemplation to soaring heights, like that of a worship experience. Even the unchurched will be taken by the spiritually-inspired goosebumpy moments where all the right buttons are pushed melodically and lyrically though without preaching or a hint of manipulation. You’ll be ready to pack it in and meet Jesus after listening to this line from the opening title track: “On a Sunday morning in the misty rain, I left a heavy burden and a cross of shame behind me. I came to the valley all alone, climbed the hill, and I was gone. I was gone. Going home.”
Yes, the Christian community will embrace many of these songs, especially those filled with cleverly crafted metaphors. Though Williams is a worship leader at his church in Mt. Pleasant, Finnegan Bell’s music transcends the stereotypes of Christian pop and rock in the same ways Switchfoot, The Avett Brothers, Lifehouse, Mumford & Sons, and U2’s music does. Any preconceived notions about what you think this may sound like should be tossed out the nearest stained glass window. Finnegan Bell is as comfortable playing in a local bar (maybe more so) as it is the home church, and most of its music could fare well in either venue. “I Was Gone” is a mix of lullabies and sacrificial laments, gray clouds with silver linings, sunrises, sunsets and contemplations on the full spectrum of life, or at least a healthy slice of it. This is music for all, the sanctified and sinner alike.
That the pair has left the tourist-driven honky-tonks of Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand for the more appreciative and serious arts community of greater Charleston is understandable. Though periodic gigs for our area will remain on its schedule, don’t expect to see Finnegan Bell in the same frequency we’ve enjoyed in the past. Our loss is Charleston’s gain. At least we’ll have “I Was Gone” to remind us what we’re missing.