september 2011

giving tree
The Giving Tree Band: country-bluegrass-folk-flavored tunes hurtling across the soundscape with the urgent drive of really good rock ‘n’ roll (photo posted at

The Wheel’s Still In Spin

The Giving Tree Band unveils another scintillating chapter in a developing saga

By David McGee

The Giving Tree Band
Crooked Creek Records

It was in the fall of 2009 that the Giving Tree Band’s Great Possessions album seemed like a revelation, and a harbinger of greater things to come, in a rapidly coalescing roots music scene of bands with affection—not affectation—for the environment, social justice, and general civility in everyday discourse. Well, as Mariel Hemingway’s character observed in the final scene of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, “Everybody gets corrupted.” The past two years has seen the rise of innumerable bands with fake rural roots, whose music sounds like it’s played on guitars with loose strings, who sing standing away from the mike, as if that’s some kind of virtue, favor the hirsute look and seem clownish in their clumsy pursuit of authenticity. This has led to a puzzling kind of celebrity for the likes of the Avett Brothers, the risible Deer Tick (proof enough that Brian Williams should stick to the news, or comedy) and whatever that band is whose female keyboard player wears Viking horns and looks like she’s about to break into an Elmer Fudd voice and sing, “Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!” Mumford & Sons? Sure sounds like those guys listened to a lot of Giving Tree Band before they got started.

The Giving Tree Band, ‘Caged Lion,’ from the album The Joke, The Threat & The Obvious

Yet this same scene has produced a few great bands on its fringe, whose musicians know how to play, sing, write and deliver their songs with unself-conscious conviction. Dawes, with Taylor Goldsmith penning gem after gem, is in the front ranks of this group; so is Delta Spirit. With The Joke, The Threat & The Obvious, its third album, Illinois’ The Giving Tree Band goes to the head of a very classy class and establishes brothers Eric and Todd Fink in the first rank of young American songwriters. Now, the GTB prides itself not only on being a carbon-neutral band (read all about in's in-depth profile of the band) but on being a collective—all the songs are credited as a band effort. Not to diminish any of the other musicians’ contributions, but the vision that defines the GTB clearly comes from the brothers Fink. To be fair, though, vocal and string arrangements are shared by Eric Fink and Philip Roach, the latter responsible for exquisite fiddle work on the latest long player, as he was on Great Possessions; and it’s quite possible the collective GTB shares in contributing ideas that produce music as rich in ambition and scope as this. The GTB’s country-bluegrass-folk-flavored tunes (sometimes those elements are all in the same song) hurtle across the soundscape with the urgent drive of really good rock ‘n’ roll—check out the incredible album opener here, “Red Leaves,” which has a lovely delicacy in the interplay between Todd Fink’s banjo and Mr. Roach’s fiddle but also a fevered, energizing, anxious rush thanks to the exuberant brush drums provided by a musician identified on the album sleeve only as J.O’C [note to GTB: full names next time, please—we like to give credit where credit is due. Thank you, DM], sounding like nothing else out there. Or consider the low-key start to “Caged Lion,” with a gently strummed guitar, a wisp of slide courtesy from one S. Woods, and then, like the sun suddenly bursting bright in the morning sky, a jubilant yelp en masse of fiddle, banjo, mandolin and slide (probably a standup bass down at the bottom too) capable of making your spirits soar if you are open to its possibilities. Eric’s rustic singing invites you in further, as he reports: “Well I woke up late and I missed my chance/but I looked back for a second glance/the windmill spun and it made you dance, uh-huh/now it’s your love that I can see/and now I hear a jamboree/shake it up, baby, just like sugaree, uh-huh…” However, the very possibilities the music portends turn out to have narrowed for the singer, who confides, “in these hard, hard times/they box me in like an old caged lion/I got more fences than a county line, uh-huh...I burn both ends and I still can’t shine…” The Giving Tree Band’s special magic is to make their existential dilemmas seem like cause for celebration—nothing in Eric’s voice, despite his frank admission of stifled aspirations, suggests defeat, but rather a determination to forge ahead towards an implied if hazily envisioned better day.

The Giving Tree Band, ‘Red Leaves,’ from The Joke, The Threat & The Obvious

In their continuing growth as songwriters, the GTB this time turns away from the American Gothic tales of Great Possessions to a closer, intimate look at relationships, questions of identity and the game of love. This gives us the oblique pursuit described in “Caged Lion”; it gives us the searing self-examination animating “Which One,” with Roach’s fiddle, Eric’s harmonium and that fellow J.O’C’s thundering drums sounding an eternal inner ache only hinted at by the subdued, silky vocal harmonizing; it gives us the shambling country heartbreaker, “Already Gone,” with Erik Norman’s honky tonk piano adding a certain winsome flavor to the steadily intensifying narrative arc and the Fink brothers’ swooning, despairing harmonizinga alike; and it gives us the spiritually uplifting sprint of “Moonlight Lady,” a jubilant embrace of all the nourishing qualities of the lady in question, with J. Jaros’s drums igniting the instrumental rush and what sounds like cooing female backup vocals supporting Eric’s buoyant litany of physical/metaphysical virtues he’s discovered in his significant other. Fifteen songs in all, some upbeat, some moody and reflective, some brutally frank and underpinned by spiky music, some captivatingly understated and earnest (the beautiful, shuffling “Reflections of My Soul,” the penultimate song, with Todd’s emotionally direct, philosophical musing of a vocal framed by Roach’s crying fiddle, Todd’s own spare banjo fills and a lush backdrop of voices seconding his thoughts) in a full examination of the many seasons of the heart’s yearnings. Though the last song is titled “Empty” and seems for all the world about heartbreak—a sense heightened when Eric’s voice rises over Roach’s brooding fiddle lines as Eric Norman strikes a series of mandolin glissandos—it comes arond to reconciliation when Eric sings with brio, “you would dance and I would sing”—and suddenly, with the words “we are one,” it ends. Silence. Finito. All live happily ever after. Right?

The Giving Tree Band, official video for ‘Circles,’ from The Joke, The Threat * The Obvious

Not so fast. This is the Giving Tree Band, and The Joke, The Threat & The Obvious is but another chapter in an unfolding saga ever more compelling and labyrinthine with each installment. Something special is going on here, and the wheel’s still in spin.

The Giving Tree Band’s The Joke, The Threat & The Obvious is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024