Even if you've never encountered the tragedy-to-triumph tale of Durham quartet Bombadil, the band's second album, the brilliant and newly reissued Tarpits and Canyonlands, stands as a reflecting pool of the bittersweet.
In a gentle but jilted ballad, intense fights between a generally happy couple serve as reminders of the joy they've otherwise found. During a jubilant and chaotic anthem, the honeymoon marks the start of a lifelong battle against a descent into ennui. Over drums that erupt and evaporate, a monument to a lover becomes a death sentence. It's as if, in writing and recording their best album, Bombadil knew that it would mean the end of them, too.
Soon after Bombadil finished making Tarpits and Canyonlands, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Michalak quit the band. He spent the next two years navigating a web of doctors and treatments that aimed to wrest control of his hands back from neural tension, a condition that had caused some of his nerves to shorten and pain to shoot through his body.
Following their intoxicating 2007 debut, A Buzz, A Buzz, Bombadil seemed poised to go professional, the sort of act that regularly landed on bands-to-watch lists. Sharing a regional record label with The Avett Brothers, well on their way to becoming one of the country's biggest draws, didn't hurt.
But Bombadil fell apart, going on indefinite hiatus and releasing Tarpits and Canyonlands with no touring and very little promotional support. Tarpits and Canyonlands offered hooks so big that you found yourself wanting to shout things like "Oto the bear played by the thicket," moments so vulnerable that you might start reflecting on a marriage you didn't even have. Without a band to power the push, though, the album limped into the world, just shy of stillborn status—an ecstatic, magnetic effort, rendered powerless by no fault of its own.
Bombadil has since restarted, releasing two new albums and working now on a third. Founding member Bryan Rahija no longer tours with the band, but Michalak—whose health is better, not perfect—has returned. And so has Tarpits and Canyonlands: Last month, Ramseur Records reissued it in deluxe, remastered vinyl form, with two kaleidoscopic LPs anchoring a hefty package that includes 14 art prints, a biodegradable download card and one bonus track. It's less like a mausoleum for the misses of Bombadil's past than a second chance for material that barely had a first.
Despite the luxurious new rendering of Tarpits and the relaunched Bombadil, this old material still carries a touch of regret that has little to do with the tunes or their themes. Sure, Bombadil lost immeasurable popular momentum after their post-Tarpits dissolution; more important, they also lost the musical gusto and focus they'd perfected on these 15 tracks. Every subsequent Bombadil release has been fine, but they've tried repeatedly and with only limited efficacy to reach the glorious shout-along highs of "25 Daniels," the haunted smile behind "Matthew" and the marching band-meet-swamp rock élan of "Cold Runway." Through Tarpits and Canyonlands, they carried the confidence of a band that had suddenly found some shot of success. Every performance is a compulsory investment with compelling results. For obvious and understandable reasons, they've yet to find that essence again.
At least that feeling aligns perfectly with Tarpits and Canyonlands' material and the story that stemmed from it. This music was born of the same promise that, in turn, broke the band into pieces. And now that this wonderful album is back, you can hear for the first time just how much experience and exploration Bombadil might have missed.
Rebuilding the pyramid
Until this year, Ramseur Records never made any money from Tarpits and Canyonlands, the second album from Bombadil. The record seemed like it would be profitable, perhaps a breakthrough for the Durham band.
But Daniel Michalak got sick, suffering from a neurological disorder that sent stabs of pain into his hands. The band took several years off, almost broke up and didn't tour behind the record. Instead of keeping what little money sales might have generated, Dolph Ramseur donated the proceeds directly to the band.
Five years later, though, Ramseur still believes in the material enough to call it one of his proudest moments as a label head and enough to have commissioned its lavish reissue.
INDY: How early in the process of making Tarpits and Canyonlands did you realize how much you loved the album?
RAMSEUR: I knew some of the songs before Bombadil went to record it—about 10 miles from my house, out in Union County, as the crow flies. I was able to go to quite a bit of the sessions for the album. I knew that we had "Honeymoon," "Oto the Bear," "Marriage" and "Matthew"—a lot of good songs. I was in there from the beginning.
How did you find out the record would never get its chance?
Daniel's hands were sore before the recording of the album. It had been an ongoing problem for maybe nine months. He was doing exercises and meeting with every doctor he could find. Right after we recorded it, Daniel told me, "I'm sorry, but I don't think I can go out and support this record with a tour. My hands are that bad." In today's world, you have to get out there on the highways and byways to promote a record. That was a bad thing for the record, but it was the right thing for Daniel to do. He needed to get well.
Did you abandon your plans to push and promote the album?
It was not a full-fledged effort whatsoever. They had the idea of getting fans to take photos of the CD in remote locations. So someone might be in Hawaii, and they'd take a picture of the CD in Hawaii. We didn't get a publicity company to work it or a radio company. In some aspects, I didn't even want to get it out.
At that point, Ramseur Records was a rising tide, especially with The Avett Brothers' popularity. It seemed like Bombadil was poised to take advantage of that. Did that make letting go of Tarpits harder?
That was the saddest thing: Tarpits never got its due. They were on the rise, and they had this material. I could not wait for people to hear this record. I felt that, if we got that record out and they had been able to tour, it would have been their Emotionalism. It was going to touch a lot of different people and make people realize that Bombadil is not such a quirky little outfit. They write songs that really connect.
How did the reissue come about?
When we had the album release party in 2009, Daniel had braces on his hands. They couldn't play, so we just got a jambox and played the album. There were a good amount of people there. It was sad. I wanted to finally give Tarpits its due. It was so special that I just wanted it to have its opportunity to shine. I'm really proud of it. Maybe on my deathbed, someone will say, "That's the guy that did the Tarpits and Canyonlands vinyl reissue."