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Saturday, April 15, 2023

Faith & Fumes: New Album from Adam Carpenter and the Upper Hand

Adam Carpenter (L) and Members of the Upper Hand
Fans of this blog will recognize Adam Carpenter's name as the lead singer and songwriter from storied Upper Peninsula bluegrass band, Chasin' Steel.  While the band continues to perform from time to time in their 21st season, Adam has spent his post-COVID recovery years writing, performing and recording new songs with his bluesy electric, outlaw country, rock-and-roll band, Adam Carpenter & The Upper Hand.   He has already released several of the tracks as singles that are currently streaming on all digital platforms or fans can purchase direct from his website https://acuh906.com/music.  The rest of the tracks will be released together on a new, full-length album Faith & Fumes which drops Friday, May 19th on all digital platforms.   Adam was kind enough to share an early release copy with me to review. 

Dropping May 19th!
The album title is drawn a song on the album (Copper Queen)  describing the long, lonely and dark drive back to Marquette from  Houghton that Adam and his band would endure every Holiday season when gigs, and fans and beverages were in abundance, but overnight accommodations were impossible to find.  For anyone who has made these kinds of drives, you can appreciated "...running on faith and fumes..." down a dark, lonely highway, all your friends softly snoring in their seats, while you are trying desperately to get back home to your loved ones.   These types of deep insights into the band's psyche run throughout the album, outlining Carpenter's quasi-biographical journey through recovering from a global pandemic, surviving heartbreak, the excitement of new relationships and the eventual redemption and serenity of personal growth.  Adam's lyrics alternate between poetic genius and keen observation of the human condition and blend seamlessly to the rhythms and songlines that traverse the album.  The songs were put in order purposefully, and the listener really should listened to in order and in their entirety, as the lyrical and musical  journeys are just as impactful as the final destination.

Recorded at Dead River Sound (Marquette), with contributions from By The Lake Sound (Brighton - with musical guru David Mosher adding various instrumental parts on tracks throughout) and The Tempermill Studios (Ferndale), the album represents a truly "Michigan Made" effort with Adam (lead vocals, guitar, mandolin), Jake Kuhlman (banjo, guitar, mandolin), Alex Polkinghorne (bass, harmony vocals) and Trevor Rosten (percussion) all hailing from the Marquette area.  Honorary "fifth man" and Adam's co-writer on some songs, Bill Arnold (dobro, lap steel, baritone guitar) also appears prominently on the album. Guest Musicians also included: Tom Tarkleson (Keys),  Blaine McQuinn (Fiddle), Kyle Bledsoe (Electric Guitar) and both Gerald Kipola and Larry Labeck on pedal steel guitar.   With the tapes rolling, musicians comfortably in the "zone" and guests holding their breath, these songs sparked to life and blazed into lyrical and harmonic gems; working cohesively together to take the listener on a musical journey.   Having listened through the album in it's entirety more than a dozen times, let me share my thoughts with you:

Track 1: About To Shine

No better way to kick off the album than with the upbeat burner featuring Adam's powerful voice and a driving banjo lick.  After a long, dark winter, this is the kind of song you want to blast on the car radio as you roll down some back road with the sun  in your face and warm April breeze blowing through your hair.   Metaphorically, Adam uses the song as a call-to-action to those of us bogged down in the dark and gray and looking forward to better days ahead.   "Go ahead, you've got this" Carpenter seems to say, "it's YOUR time to shine". 

Track 2: Moving Waters

Adam has been playing this song on acoustic guitar for several years now, and I never could quite connect with it.   But in the studio, something magical happened.  It could be the dark, smoky and funky bass line; or maybe the soaring late-night blues guitar from Kyle Bledsoe; or even the Hammond B3 organ (Tom Tarkelson) on this track.  The song has now evolved into  now a groovy, energetic and danceable number evoking the labor and hard work it takes to move on...and why you should do exactly that.

Track 3: Trailers & Tornadoes

Adam co-wrote this song with songwriting partner Bill Arnold, who lives eight hours away in SouthEast Michigan using an old-school technology (there is some debate if this was cell phone, flip phone or old school landline telephone...hell, it might have been by old fashioned US Postal service mail!).    Both Bill and Adam have released versions of this song (Bill with his band One Ton Trolley and Adam with the Upper Hand).  While the song is the same, the versions have come out totally different feel as they dance around the type of energetic and sometimes toxic relationships between people powerfully and inevitably drawn together and the chaos that ensues around them. 

Track 4: Copper Queen

As mentioned above, this is the track that yielded the album title. Written around summer campfire with members of One Ton Trolley and even Adam's fiance (now wife) contributing to the lyrics, this song not only tells the story of those January midnight runs, but about the strength and trust one puts in oneself to boldly forge ahead--sometimes with nothing but faith to have your back.   Killer arrangement on this cut including some amazing fiddle work by Blaine McQuinn. 

Track 5: Gonna Be Alright

Adam wrote this sweet love song as an ode to his wife, and how their relationship allows them let go of the challenges of their life when together, and how they bring out the best in each other.  A beautiful, light and airy guitar part is paired with a mix of  dobro (Bill Arnold) and pedal steel guitar (Gerald Kipola) to give this song a ton of soul and character.   The best line on the album "you're my hardest goodbye and my favoritest hello, and I know, it's gonna be alright" has extra special meaning to me.  In a dark time in my life, Adam sent an acoustic cut of that line to me and got me through a difficult time.     The power of music sometimes transcends the human condition and makes us all better that we are alone.   This song does that for sure. 

Track 6: Waiting for the Thaw

A remastered version of an earlier released song, this ballad of long winters and bad breakups really manages to evoke the loneliness and desperation of  of Michigan's long gloomy springs when summer is just a memory and hope becomes harder and harder to find.  The killer Baritone guitar part on this song really raises the tension and kicks the song into high gear before resolving into just the barest hint of sunlight and warmth around the corner. 

Track 7: Walkin with Bigfoot

This song started out as a novelty throwaway song  for Adam's mother-in-law who had an "experience" or "encounter" in the woods one night.    Adam was noodling around on it in the studio when bassist Alex Polkinghorne added a crazy, funky, over-driven bass line and Jake Kuhlman contributed a bluesy/loping banjo roll and a instant classic was born!  This song is destined to be a staple on Northern Michigan college campuses and around summer campfires for years to come!

Track 8: Answers

This was the only song on the album that I had never heard Adam play before--and it's a great counterpoint to Waiting for the Thaw.  Upbeat with just a touch of summer party-pop, the song just oozes an early Jimmy Buffet/Jerry Jeff Walker vibe.  It's a country rocker for sure, but close your eyes and you can hear the steel drums and taste the tropical drinks of summer on some nowhere tropical island.  This is definitely another top down, sunny day, road trip jam. 

Track 9: Own Two Feet 

A daddy/daughter wedding dance in 3/4 time, this song is destined to be a wedding DJ classic.  The simple, clean lyrics and classic country arrangements (with pedal steel from the legendary Larry Labeck) make this song instantly lovable.  It's also important that  this song recognizes that our daughters grow up into amazing, strong, brave and talented women.

Track 10:  Burn

The album ends with this absolute burner.  It starts with a baritone guitar-driven spaghetti-western themed rhythm line and slowly builds (burns?) to an all out countrified rock anthem.   Lyrically, this song circles back to the beginning of the album and documents one man's efforts and decisions to take the next step, no matter the consequences.

Bonus Tracks:

Adam has included a previously released track UP Life to round out the album.  Close your eyes and let him take you down some "backwoods B.F.E." in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  You might even find some surprises and Answers along the way.


Adam Carpenter (Center) and the Upper Hand

Adam  Carpenter & The Upper Hand are currently booking shows for the 2023 season  and beyondFaith & Fumes will be available on all digital platforms on May 19th, 2023 and can be downloaded from the band website on that date: https://acuh906.com/music.  Better yet, go see that band play live and purchase a physical copy of the CD!   Also, check out their high quality merchandise.  Or just give the band a little "tip" to tell them you like what you here.  Every little bit helps.