From the opening vocal blending of Jus Post Bellum’s Oh July there’s clearly something special about this band. This is not the toe-tapping banjo-driven poppy folk music that seems to be dominating the scene in the 21st century. No, instead, it’s a lyric-driven, mature folk sound that captures harmonic energy and a layered historical depth in both words and music. This is an immediate contender for album of the year. Geoffrey Wilson, the songwriter for this album, must be a genius.
The opener “Gimme that Gun” does not have the sound that would seem to go with such a title. It’s not a joke or a threat. The repetitive refrain, “Lord, I can see darkness” points to an edgy existential questioning. The ethereal female backing vocals give the song a transcendent sound. The underlying bass (or is it a cello?) give the track delightful depth. It also introduces listeners to the “call to arms” for the Civil War themed album.
The title track “Oh July” is a real stunner. From the acoustic guitar picking that provides the foundation for the song to the phenomenal vocal blending in the chorus, the song is clearly a productive of considerable hard work in the songwriting process. References to cavalry, bullets, and soldiers give listeners an indication that the album’s Civil War theme continues to unfold. “You sang the devil’s chorus. You claim self defense.” Continuing the discussion of killing in war, there’s even a reference to the “pages of your Bible.” This is a far more intricate piece of writing than most of what is available in today’s music scene; it’s amazing. Later in the song there are specific references to fighting for the Union, so it’s obvious the focus of the album in that regard.
“Sonny” has a 1970s rock-country feel to it in all the best ways. Referencing “Johnny Rebel” and a few of the battles from the Civil War, there’s an evident depth of research here. The storyline focuses on a soldier missing in action, teasing with the theme of desertion. The song, in conjunction with the previous, really beg the question whether JPB have any formal historical training. They certainly have a knack for layered meaning. See, it’s not just a song about the war. “Why did you run away my love?” is also a question about love. It’s an allegory for a broken romance (running away, fighting for another man, breaking up a “union.”) Wow.
“For the Broken Hearted” does a really good job of balancing Geoffrey’s voice with Hannah Jensen’s softer female vocal quality. When she sings, “I knew when we met you were trouble” the listener can’t help but get a subtle wry smile. The song is ultimately about coping with loss and loneliness. Although it has less of a connection with the overall theme of the war, it definitely connects with the spirit of the time.
One of the richest fields of study on the Civil War is that of the faith of the soldiers and civilians. The track “Call to My Jesus” taps into that fertile theme that was so rich in shaping the people of the Civil War. From the faith of marriage to the fears of death in the war, it’s a tragic and bizarrely sing-a-long song. Again the vocal harmonies provide the core identity of the song, with intricate and evocative lyrics portraying a complicated family relationship, infused with the images of faith in the midst of war.
“It’s a Shame” deals with coping with the reality of killing. It doesn’t seem to be purely about killing in war, but has a purposefully vague description of killing. The music is a bit more complicated than others on the album, including some pretty wicked 70s organ in the background and some appropriately twangy guitars that give it a sort of Shaft swagger. It doesn’t totally fit with the overall ethos of the album, but it’s a welcome mid-disc break from the stripped-down folk sound.
It’s fairly obvious that “Abe and Johnny” is the climactic song on the album. It’s almost the kind of song that defies description; it is the one track that defines the band best. Obviously it’s about President Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. The positive chord progression and subtle vocal expressions prove to define a truly remarkable song. From the percussion to the electric guitars, the song is in perfect balance. Ultimately the message is about love and perseverance in the midst of tragedy; “I promise to stay with you until I die.” It’s unclear whether the message is meant as Abraham to Mary Todd Lincoln, or if its merely an abstraction drawn out of the Lincoln assassination. In either event, it’s a stunning sonic masterpiece.
Just when I thought I couldn’t like the album any more, they bring in a soft trumpet on “Tell Me Mama” to really fill the sound. It’s comfortable and cozy. It’s also probably the best duet harmonies on the entire album (which are all really good). The following “Measure of a Man” puts listeners in the mind of James Taylor (high praise indeed). Everything from the phrasing to the flecks on the electric guitar feel like a bygone era in Americana music. It’s a great track with all of the defining characteristics from the rest of the album: great vocals, brilliant songwriting, and an enjoyable overall sound.
The final track “Lake Minnesota” is the definition of Americana music. It has a gorgeous sound starting with the finger-picking acoustic guitar, followed shortly thereafter by stunning full band vocal blending. Contrasting with much of the album that highlights duet vocals, this section has CSNY-style full harmonies. The refrain, “I was a witness, I…” seems to leave more mystery than anything, but it so beautiful most listeners probably don’t care what it means.
From start to finish this is a phenomenal album. My thesaurus is out of complimentary words for the kind of songwriting here. I wrote from the outset that Wilson is a songwriting genius. He is indeed. It’s not always evident what each lyric means, but that mystery is part of the brilliance behind it. Even listen after listen there are layers of imagery that shine through the work. Some albums are good toe-tappers that get us excited to hear the band live. This, instead, is a piece of art in and of itself. I still want to hear them live, but until then Oh July will keep me plenty entertained, challenged, and enlightened.
Fans of new folk music need this album. Aficionados of Americana music will delight in this album from start to finish. Folks that like American history will get a kick out of the layered imagery throughout and may appreciate the music as well. In short, there are not very many readers of this site that will not enjoy this album. Check it out on bandcamp and consider purchasing it to help these fantastic musicians perpetuate their craft.