Charleston's unorthodox Sol Driven Train dedicate themselves to an unusually healthy and consistent do-it-yourself work ethic — on the stage and in the studio. With a strong allegiance to musical versatility, the technically proficient and open-eared quintet are a difficult group to define.
The songs on their melodic, newly released 10-song collection, Lighthouse (their third studio album) sound more like a well-versed, worldly wise rock outfit in the vein of Paul Simon's Graceland combo — or James Taylor jamming with members of the Talking Heads over a few Jägerbombs — than a typically noodly, Southern-style jam band.
In an unusual and lengthy series of low-budget recording sessions, lead singer/guitarist Joel Timmons, sax player/singer Russell Clarke, singer/guitarist/trombonist Ward Buckheister, bassist Rusty Cole, and drummer/keyboardist Phill Eason engineered and produced Lighthouse at several locations throughout 2007, including a beach house in the Outer Banks of N.C., a lake house in Wisconsin, and a home studio on Folly Beach.
They mixed it with the assistance of Jeff Leonard at Fusion Five Studio in Mt. Pleasant last fall. This Saturday's show at the Pour House marks the official release.
"We recently met a great guy named Brian Brumfield [a fan who showed up at a sparsely attended gig in West Virginia] and developed a friendship with him," says Timmons of their Outer Banks connection. "He put us up in this huge beach house in Rodanthe that's empty in the winter. We recorded as much as we could there. This wouldn't have happened without him."
Timmons and his colleagues spent two weeks in January 2007 recording most of the basic drum, bass, and guitar tracks, then worked on horn tracks at the lead singer's home studio on Folly Beach.
"We'd play on the road a few nights a week, then come back and work a little bit at a time on the recordings," Timmons says. "We couldn't afford to go into a big studio, so we fit it in when we could."
Last year, an early-summer tour in the works nearly fell apart due to a one-week gap in the middle of the trip — time off the band simply could not afford. They decided to maintain some of the dates while utilizing the off-time as an opportunity to record their vocal tracks.
"The dates just weren't coming together," says Timmons. "Instead of cancelling the tour, we used that time to do most of the vocal tracks. We had access to a lake house studio up there [in Lauderdale Lakes], so it ended up being a working vacation."
Guest musicians included Cameron Harder on trumpet, Philip Antman on percussion, Pete "Beaux" Coish on fretless guitar, Roger Bellow on violin and viola, and Kev Rowe on electric guitar.
With the basic tracks complete, the band hired local engineer Jeff Leonard and mixed on Fusion Five's vintage Harrison console, going from the digital original tracks to analog tape, then back to Pro Tools for mixing and mastering. The end result is surprisingly polished and cohesive.
"I think we captured the vibe we were initially going for in the Outer Banks," Timmons says of the final mix. "We got the tempo and the feel right — and that was the hard part. Putting the overdubs on top of that was a lot of fun. It gave us time to get away and then come back to the songs. I didn't hate them when I came back to them, which was a good sign."
By the mid-2000s, Sol Driven Train had established themselves in Charleston's club scene as a tight reggae/funk/rock act.In early 2006, they released a "children's album" titled Tajar Tracks, recorded at Camp Gwynn Valley in Brevard, N.C. They released a 14-song live album titled Live on the Outer Banks — recorded in November 2006 at the Outer Banks Brewing Station.
"We've come so far as a band," says Timmons. "Our writing has become much more focused. It's not as jammy. It's more song-focused. The reggae and the funk aren't as emphasized on this album. It's more singer/songwriter-oriented, really. It's hard to pigeonhole it."
The instrumentation and arrangements on Lighthouse are a bit more sophisticated and inventive than on previous recordings. It doesn't resemble the ramshackle manner in which it was produced. If Sol Driven Train can continue to pull off such impressive feats as this, anything is possible.
- T. Ballard Lesemann, Charleston City Paper, April 2, 2008