On the cover of Tristan Omand’s new record Eleven Dark Horses, a mist-snorting stallion stirs to its feet, ready for movement. Painted by fellow troubadour Dan Blakeslee, the image is a fitting one — the Concord songwriter is a habitué of the road.
“I’ve been nearly everywhere,” he sings on the leadoff track, “nearly everywhere but home.”
But the restless Omand settled down to make his latest album at Rocking Horse Studio with producer Brian Coombes. Some of the region’s best players give his music texture, without over-adorning it — the grittiness shines though. Atmospheric instrumentation punctuates the 11 tunes, including Myron Kibbe’s rustic guitar, Joey Pierog sighing quietly on bowed bass, high lonesome lap steel from Zach Uncles and stellar work from fiddler Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki.
Standout songs include “21 Windows,” with a melancholy fiddle line trailing Omand as he sings, “the North wind did moan,” and “The Place,” an optimistic tune about finding hope, and “a map to the place where the pines grow tall.” Fittingly, though, the record ends with Omand singing and playing alone on the evocative ballad, “Gone Gone Highway.”
Omand is known for playing raucous one-man shows from Manchester to Kentucky, but to mark the new album, many of the players will join him at a release show June 12 at Tupelo Music Hall. The evening will also feature performances from guests Jay Psaros and Badfellows. Later in the month, Omand will appear with the same configuration at the third annual Granite State Music Festival (June 22 in Concord).
To record the songwriter, Coombes took a spare approach, employing a single M-49 tube ceiling microphone with stereo mics behind him to capture reverb bouncing from the wall.
“If we wanted more guitar we lowered it, more vocals, we raised it,” he said.
Other elements, like drums, were woven in later; Coombes’ playing also elevates the mood with accordion, melodica, and glockenspiel, along with vintage electronics like Omnichord and Moog Taurus pedal.
Primarily, Coombes was excited by Omand’s unique writing style.
“I have a degree in English with a focus on 20th-century American literature, so the first time we got together it was more about Tristan’s lyrics and how I was interpreting them,” he said. “I was able to engross myself … it’s almost like these are a collection of William Faulkner short stories.”
Omand’s hardscrabble landscape is filled with damaged souls, broken down vans with rusted bumpers and hitchhikers catching rides in stolen cars, hopping trains and sleeping under stars.
“I just sat and listened to every gravel-road-like word, there’s one inside us all dying to get out, just one little innocent bird,” he sings on “Bluebird.”
For Omand, who made his first record at home and the second on a shoestring budget, working in a well-equipped studio like Rocking Horse was both liberating and challenging — sometimes financially. He spoke of buying a guitar to use on a single track, only to sell it a few weeks later to cover some of the recording costs.
“There’s your chorus,” he recalled thinking. “But it came at the right time and left at the right time.”
The title of Eleven Dark Horses comes from an unused track inspired by Omand’s hero Johnny Cash. Along with the commissioned Blakeslee watercolor and liner notes from journalist Chris Hislop, it’s his first album to have a lyric insert.
“It makes me real happy that’s there,” said Coombes. “Of any record I’ve done here, this is the one that’s most deserving.”
“You want people to spend time with it, make it a complete experience,” Omand interjected with a smile. “This was something I needed to do.”
As seen in the June 5, 2014 issue of the Hippo.