Common Prayer is a project created by Jason Russo, a Brooklyn songwriter, sometime touring bassist with Mercury Rev and leader of his own band, Hopewell. He crossed the Atlantic to form a loose collective, Common Prayer, and to record There Is A Mountain in a Berkshire barn. Russo’s choice of a village outside Didcot may have been influenced, consciously or otherwise, by the pop mythology of Traffic’s move to the country to get their heads together among, and write songs about, the Berkshire poppies.
So why has a American songwriter gone down this route, choosing an overtly English band name, a self-conscious location (“a cow barn on Hill Farm, in the English village of Steventon”), and the kind of messed-up instruments (such as a water-damaged piano) which do not feature in the average barn? Is this real inspiration or gauche marketing, and what does it have to do with the music?
The opening track, ‘commonprayer’ lays the band’s strengths and weaknesses bare. It rattles into view, drums clicking chugging like a model train, a squeaky violin, the gentle strum of a casually tuned acoustic guitar, and an overheard snatch of conversation about a wet fish shop. This is winning stuff, balancing an easy, collective style with found sound a determination not to take itself too seriously. Then the vocals kick in, and the delicate balance starts to fall apart. Russo sings in an extra-reedy tenor and his voice thins alarmingly as he approaches the high notes, which he does frequently. He lurches at times towards a parody of an alt-country vocal – the eternal humourless young man with an old beard singing about twelve different break-ups in the space of one album. His is definitely not a voice influenced by English music, and any creative cultural collision completely fails to materialise.
But it’s not just a question of whether Russo’s voice appeals to you. The quality of the songwriting on There Is A Mountain falls short. In ‘commonprayer’, a dismal obsession with squeezing a rhyme from every couplet overwhelms the music. It’s a serious distraction to be nervously waiting for the next lyrical clanger: “In the morning bed don’t fit, I offer up my heart on a stick” being one of several. The worst offender is the chorus, which returns again and again to explain that “I keep singing in and out of tune, and it’s always been to you, ooo-ooo.”
The problem is that Common Prayer is excellent in parts. The ramshackle band dynamics work very well, with the quality of the percussion standing out. The drums on ‘Hopewell’, for example, sound as though they are being crashed out on corrugated iron with lengths of 2×4, which may well be the case. Doubts about the barn schtick are assuaged when the band sound, as they often do, as though they’re actually playing the thing. Likewise, the backing vocals are distinctive, often sounding like a raggedy late-night group of friends and passers-by lending a hand. They turn ‘Sara G’, a pretty undistinguished song, into a riotous pub sing-along by going at it no holds barred.
‘Marriage Song’ is the stand-out track, with Russo toning down his vocal performance and singing more to his strengths. A rubber-band bass bounces the song along, an authentic rocking guitar riff pops up halfway through, and an all-girl selection of backing singers provide an unexpected level of sheen.
‘Us v Them’ also has plenty going for it, with crashing, doomy drums under a particularly tinkly piano. It goes all ‘Abbey Road’, with a downbeat, spaced out, melodic chorus: “And in the end, you are so beautiful, beautiful my friend…” bookended with a spot of whistling. It is likeable and tuneful and by no means essential, which is the story of the whole album. Each track has something to admire, be it the guitar (‘Of Saints’), the bass (‘American Sex’), or the enthusiastic drums and vocals. But ultimately no track amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and most are mediocre songs given a boost by the musicians and the production.
Jason Russo’s vocal is the real weak point, pulling the record towards a default sound on too many of the tracks. The album drags from a third of the way through, picking up typically with part of a song, the chorus of “Free Air” which is a gorgeous tune buried among some aimlessly strumming. Ultimately though, there’s not enough in There Is A Mountain to justify a full album of harmless, take-it-or-leave-it, alt-country. Wilco have spent the last 15 years purveying this kind of music to a much higher standard.