Although he stayed in Yo La Tengo long enough to play on that band’s 1986 debut album and has since come to be known around East Coast indie circles as the guitarist to send for when superb Nashville-style picking or pedal-steeling is needed, Long Island native Dave Schramm has pledged his musical troth to the band that bears his name, a sterling country-pop-rock quartet that manages to not compromise its humble lack of pretense with a literary bent that regularly looks to Emily Dickinson for song lyrics.
The robust and handsome Walk to Delphi unveils the group, in which Schramm — joined by bassist Al Greller, organist Terry Karydes and ex-Human Switchboard drummer Ron Metz — makes the Dylanesque most of his woody, knockabout voice. Avoiding the standard templates (no Gram Parsons or George Jones tunes, thanks just the same; the only cover here is Tom Paxton’s “Everytime”), Schramm doesn’t so much play country as reclaim its folky aspects to shape his singer/songwriter rock. The band does other things as well: “Big Stink” and “Gusano Verde” are original Southwestern instrumentals. If Schramm’s melodies are attractive without being memorable, the whole enterprise is so cozy and good-spirited that it’s hard not to pull up a chair and enjoy the warmth. (The ’95 reissue improves the artwork and replaces the calamitous electric “Gusano Verde” with a much nicer acoustic “sketch.” It also restores the Dickinson lyrics of “Number Nineteen,” which were on the original vinyl and cassette issue but were replaced on the OKra CD when a publisher belatedly denied the group permission to adapt the poem.)
Schramm’s singing and writing are notably more assured on Rock Paper Scissors Dynamite: “Talking to Me Poor” sounds like the great lost outtake from The Byrds Play Dylan. The group’s range gets a good workout here: the peppy rock arrangement of “Her Darkness” energizes a nice tune, while smoothing the burrs off the Saints’ “In the Mirror” leaves a lonely pop ballad; the country style of “Nine Years” serves the wistful solemnity of the confessional lyrics. A sharp, often moving, record. (The belated US issue adds a song, “Sorrow on Sorrow.”)
The careful centrism of Little Apocalypse is too much of a good thing. With Karydes gone (replaced by George Usher), Schramm sets off down a semi-electric country-rock road, a development that’s not entirely for the better. While stability gives him room to stretch out and showcase his excellent instrumental skills, it puts too consistent a stamp on the fine songs, obscuring the ample merits of “Where Were You,” “A Woman’s Name,” “Heart Not Within” and Lucinda Williams’ “Side of the Road.” A pair of instrumentals — the slide-driven “Duck Hunting in Hell” and the acoustic “Little American Hymn” — stand out for their stylistic variance, an attribute that doesn’t flatter the rest of the album.
Schramm’s solo record, released in a tiny edition in Germany, is ironically, the best of the bunch. Making do without a rhythm section on this intimate, mostly acoustic outing resolves the stylistic quandary of Little Apocalypse; as if to make that perfectly clear, Folk und die Folgen begins with a gorgeous rendition of “A Woman’s Name.” Deftly arranging acoustic guitar and sparing measures of lap steel, organ, piano and harmony vocals into watercolors shimmering with melodic light, Schramm barely disturbs the air — the performances nearly come to a standstill between words — yet still conveys an enormous breadth of feeling in his sure, delicate delivery. The version here of “Talking to Me Poor” is equal to the band’s but very different in feel. The spare cover of David Blue’s “Sister Rose” is even finer than the Schramms’ version on the Matador single, which also includes Little Apocalypse‘s “Heart Not Within” and the previously unreleased “What I Knew Today.”