The American South’s musical reputation rests far more on blues, country music, and jazz than anything else. “Southern rock” has enjoyed periods of popularity with particularly enormous peaks Alternative rock bands, or punk/pop influenced acts, are much smaller in number. The Chillbumps, formed in the late 1980’s, is clearly under the sway of European and American indie rock on their 1991 debut Welcome to Our Arbor Day Fair. You’ll even hear glimmers of pop-punk peeking through during some tracks. It was the band’s only release and they play like it, practically bursting with ideas, but there’s a maturity here as well that reaches far beyond your typical first album from a young band.
You hear hints of it in the album opener “Function Junction”. The Chillbumps are effortless when it comes to generating musical energy and Tim Bryant’s drumming is a reason why. He has the sort of precise and effortless pep many drummers aspire to and his teaming with bassist Jeff Niebuhr is the band’s foundation. Even stronger evidence of their maturity emerges during the third song “I See You”. The upbeat folk-tinged track has vigorous acoustic guitars and an arrested melody that holds listeners throughout the song’s entirety.
The band’s gifts blossom full-blown, however, with the track “Happy Bass Riff”. There is nothing groundbreaking about this composition, it obeys every songwriting fundamental, but the song’s central melody is a thing of beauty. The Chillbumps, to a man, realize this and bring their A-game to the table. This is the heart of the album, along with its two follow-ups. “Alice” is one of the album’s best full band performances, but David Borel seems to bring a little extra to this one not heard in the album’s other performances. It suggests that the lyric dredges up personal experience he makes great use of but, if it isn’t and it’s a pure performance, it’s an even more impressive accomplishment.
“Lost and Found” is a bit overlong, probably by 30 seconds, as the band is reaching for something during its final section that they don’t quite have a complete grasp on yet. The vast bulk of the track, however, is an incendiary punk rock-inspired romp with arguably the album’s best chorus. They reshuffle the musical deck without ever veering off-course with the track “Ashes”. It’s a song that may sneak up on you as listeners might find themselves waiting for a big climax that never quite comes, yet they don’t come away disappointed. It pays off in other ways.
The percussion for “Love” provides one of its key ingredients and gives the sort of shuffle beat some added spice. Vocalist David Borel doesn’t ever try to outshine his bandmates, he’s integrated into the sound throughout, but there’s no question when you hear songs such as this that he possessed the requisite vocal chops to lead the band into the national spotlight. Their long history as a live band dictates, to a point, the band’s wont for guitar-driven fare, and “Lisbon Trees” was likely a powerful live number for the band. It packs plenty of power on Welcome to Our Arbor Day Fair and the rhythm section is again a highlight. Hearing this three-decades and counting old album so long after the fact isn’t just dusting off a forgotten artifact; the album’s songs sound just as vital in 2022 as 1991.
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