“People want something that is authentic and real.”
This one-liner from guitar and mandolin virtuoso Chris Banke is the most empowering message behind the Forlorn Strangers’ new self-titled album. Americana and folk aren’t by any means atop the most listened-to genre in our society today. However, after listening to this new album, I am starting to questioning why this group would be thought of as strangers.
Despite the fact that this album isn’t overflowing with synthesized technology or blood-pumping choruses of pop and rock, it’s some of the most down-to-earth music in the industry today. Sisters Abigail Dempsey and Hannah Lusk, as well as Benjamin Lusk, Jesse Thompson, and Banke all specialize in multiple instruments and harmonize beautifully as an Americana team out of Nashville.
“With us, there’s not a lot of pressure in Nashville. It’s just one of those special places where we feel no competition or pressure. We’re like a community of neighbors who play the banjo or fiddle out on the porch to create music.” This relaxed and easy listening feeling fully shines through their new album, starting with “Bottom of the Barrel”.
The calming Americana vibe begins right away with a 20-second opening of a harmonica and a banjo that kick off the melody. A unique aspect of this song is that the title truly does reflect this group. They started off at the bottom of the barrel and are slowly climbing in popularity. As the piano enters the mix and the music gets increasingly complex, a Dixie Land/Ragtime atmosphere enters the fray as lyrics, “Now I’m standing in the valley of the shadow of death / I don’t know what’s coming so I hold my breath, but we will try, we’ll try our very best,” prep the interlude full of percussion, fiddles, and even more.
Aside from a “relieve your stress” aspect like in the opening song, this album is also very unique in its storytelling. “Come Back Down,” written by Banke, is a mellow piece that depicts an unfortunate end to a relationship. As Banke stated, this song spotlights the part in his life when he “was still in love, but also bitter.” Opening lines “Don’t tell me I need courage / Cause lately I ain’t got no one” highlight the sorrow in his vocals while the accompaniment of light tempo drums, a banjo, and more from the group convey this gorgeous song.
“Cleveland” also builds upon Banke’s story, as this track was written in a hotel bathroom. “It was my first time back there since the breakup and I had all these mixed feelings,” he said. Being such a “close-knit group,” The Forlorn Strangers worked with Banke to incorporate a violin, acoustic guitar, banjo, and beautiful background vocals to deliver this message. Oddly enough, every time they perform this on tour, Banke performs in a humorous light to reflect how he felt during this part of his life.
Other than love stories, “Sugarcane” (written by Ben Lusk) is another song on the album which tells an unfamiliar tale. Emotions in the vocals and the classic Americana beat of the snares depicts a four-minute story about a massive hurricane that destroyed the lives of hundreds of sugarcane workers. Although the intentions in this song are difficult to understand at times, there was another element that is even more intriguing: the mentioning of Jesus.
Banke and Lusk were playing together in a band in Southern Florida where they eventually met the Dempsey sisters during their time at a Christian college. Their presence in the college is part of what led to the mentioning of God and Jesus in “Sugarcane” and “Bottom of the Barrel”. Furthermore, it also has a hand in the St. Peter lyrics during “What I Don’t Remember” and the Job allusion during “Cleveland”.
Remember, this group isn’t going to blow you away with electric guitar solos, high pitched voices, or an array of technological light and sound effects. There isn’t a huge focus on solely drums and guitar and there aren’t melodies to make audiences race to their feet to jump up and down in strobe lights. That’s not their goal. Their instrumental talents, music composition and orchestration and vocals are. Whether it’s five-part harmonies in “Whittle and Pare,” encouraging and life-building messages like “Down in the Trenches”, or simply beautiful music like in “Leave it on the Ground”, this group will surprise you.
Don’t disregard them because they are an easy listening band or because you have never heard of them. The Forlorn Strangers are on an entirely new stratosphere of unique and intricate music. Every voice deserves to be heard, especially theirs.
Americana/Folk I ILS Group