The first time I saw Bombadil, they almost blew me away. That is, I nearly needed to leave the room because I disliked the young quartet onstage so very much: Opening for The Avett Brothers in University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Great Hall in the winter of 2005, Bombadil seemed to me a catastrophe of enthusiasm, where ambition outstripped actual ability. Four jubilant jesters bounded around the stage in vintage clothing, howling, harmonizing and generally acting like the zany, undeveloped acolytes of the night's rambunctious headliners. While the songs occasionally clicked, the poiseless performance didn't.
It's reassuring, then, how very different and magnetic Bombadil seems only four years later, especially since what seems to have always been its core conceit—have fun with sound and sing like this song might be your last—remains intact. Indeed, the band's second and unequivocally best LP, Tarpits and Canyonlands, bounds and staggers just as energetically as the quartet did that night in Chapel Hill. Moving in a latticework of counterpoint, the harmonies, horns and polyrhythms of "Oto the Bear" suggest watching fireworks from a carousel that's spinning out of control. "Honeymoon" builds from a sweet, acoustic lilt into a triumphant thrum, referencing Queen while recalling The Arcade Fire unplugging and handing spare snares to the audience. That early ambition still shines, too, through Bombadil's endearing pan-everything approach. "Laurita" is a jangling swoon sung in Spanish, the melody picked on a classical guitar, the humid rhythm a marriage of calypso jazz and rhumba rock. "Pyramid" mixes flute, banjo and gargantuan drum patterns that wouldn't seem out of place on Animal Collective's landmark Sung Tongs. And, come to think of it, these songs wouldn't necessarily have sounded out of place on last year's great Bombadil advance, A Buzz, A Buzz, or the band's rudimentary if charming 2006 debut EP, either.
But Tarpits and Canyonlands is a far leap from and, ultimately, above its predecessors for several reasons: First, it simply sounds great. Under the veteran oversight of Monroe, N.C., producer Scott Solter (The Mountain Goats, John Vanderslice, St. Vincent), Bombadil's nuances shine brightly on the biggest screen they've ever seen. At times, the piano seems like it might spill out of the speakers, and James Phillips' brilliantly busy drumming influences everything, like a caboose with something to say. After years of relentless touring, Bombadil's grown in terms of technicality and proficiency, so that they're good enough to not only play their ideas but also to expand them. Their kitchen-sink approach has begotten both poise and precision by demand, and the themes that geyser from the album's every inch are presented and captured perfectly.
But what's most inspiring might just be the words, or tales of resilience and resignation to survival: A marriage becomes a chance to test mettle. Suicide gets cast as a cheap alternative that hurts others more than it helps the dead. Life becomes an opportunity to lift someone up. That fits somehow, since four years ago, Bombadil, an ex-cover band trying to stake claim to a sound of its own, sounded like the kid-spit of the headliner, The Avett Brothers, who've since become one of the biggest things on American stages.
As it's the third Bombadil release on Ramseur Records, the Concord, N.C., house the Avetts helped build, Tarpits and Canyonlands follows in that band's footsteps. But make no mistake: It sounds a lot like a breakthrough and a breakaway, a mature but charged statement from a band whose ideas, enthusiasms, abilities and emotions have finally found their nexus. These tunes are the sort of stuff adventurous chamber ensembles could tackle and indie kids can shout. Let's hope, then, that the band's temporary setback remains just that.