The Milagro Saints are that relatively rare thing, an earnest old-fashioned folk rock band. Vocalists SD Ineson and Joyce Bowden met in New York and then brought their operation southward to Raleigh, North Carolina, where as everyone knows the roots are grassier. Their second release, Midnight America, is a competent but slightly boring example of what happens when middle aged people decide that pessimism and despair are just too adolescent and try for something upbeat and hopeful.
Like their most obvious progenitors, the Fairport Convention, Milagro Saints do a bang-up version of a Bob Dylan song. I say most obvious, because of the prevalence of vocal harmony and Bowden’s voice, which has more than a little of Sandy Denny about it. This time, the Dylan cover is “One More Cup of Coffee”. This track is one of the album’s best, not surprisingly because it’s the Poet of Minnesota penning the lyrics. But the point is well taken-Milagro Saints’ skill seems to be in crafting tight and musically mobile songs and not so much in expressing how they feel about things (they feel good! They feel hopeful! Who cares?). The arrangement for this song features Austin’s Richard Bowden on the fiddle, weaving his way through a melody worthy of Camper Van Beethoven’s most chilling alt-klezmer moments. Add to that some complex, Fairport-like harmonies and an interesting beat and you have that rare thing: a cover that not only pays homage to but expands upon the original.
Elsewhere, however, the band falls into the hackneyed formula of Hammond organ and acoustic guitar, ending one shallowly optimistic number after the other with satisfying resolution of whatever modal uncertainties they might have fostered along the way. “Amelia” is probably the album’s most catchy tune, mostly because of the sweet little keyboard line that introduces and ends the song and the rest of the band’s competent and rhythmic strumming.
Moreover, recurring lyrical themes grate like the worst of Oprah bookclub self help manuals: “Don’t take the blame / Between sweet friends / Wash it all away” or “I’m takin’ a freedom ride, and my heart’s movin’ over the line” or the worst offender, “Invisible Child,” which seems to be a sort of anthem to self-actualization.
I should mention that the Saints have a rather distinguished past, having among them played with such luminaries as Joey Ramone, David Byrne, the Tom Tom Club and Jack Rubies. And, the tradition they now find themselves in is itself distinguished. Joyce Bowden’s robust and flexible soprano certainly does no injustice to Sandy Denny’s Fairport warblings, while all of them seem to be competent enough musicians to pull off not only the changes but the energy necessary to make folk-rock really enjoyable.
So why was I bored three songs into the album? The Fairport Convention has a certain epic scope, a rangy and even histrionic moodiness — think of the emotional range of wistful to riotous between “Where Does the Time Go” and “Meet on the Ledge.” Milagro Saints are just upbeat. Although there’s a lot to like on this album, I couldn’t help wondering if what was missing, in the end, was emotional complexity.