Along with the resplendent textures, radiant melodies and irrepressible ebullience that have united the output of Nashville-via-Chapel Hill-via-Wilkesboro band Roman Candle, the act's other especially pervasive feature is persistence. After all, Oh Tall Tree in the Ear, the band's glowing and ambitious second LP, is the sort of record that shouldn't exist.
As a young Chapel Hill act writing songs while going to school, Logan and Skip Matheny were drafted by an NFL player to be an early act on his well-funded upstart label. The band's roughly recorded debut did well, ultimately earning Roman Candle a deal with Disney-propped major Hollywood Records. They re-recorded the debut and awaited its release as The Wee Hours Revue. But Hollywood passed, and V2—the large independent label owned by entertainment mogul Richard Branson—purchased the record's rights and finally released it in the summer of 2006. There was some acclaim, some touring; then, another catastrophe: V2 dropped most acts and almost all of its music business. Ostensibly cursed, Roman Candle could claim two stellar versions of one record, neither backed by an interested label. What could be next? Cut your losses and get a job, right?
By then, though, the resilient core of Roman Candle was bound by family, label support or no. Logan and Skip were brothers of the N.C. mountains, and Timshel Matheny, a piano player and poet, married Skip in 1998. The trio persevered in Nahville, leaving some of its trusty sidemen back in Chapel Hill. They wrote and recorded, eventually landing with Music City producer Jason Lehning. Now, three years later, Roman Candle's finally released Tall Tree, a powerful 11-track follow-up that, somehow, finds the strong esprit Roman Candle boasted when fame seemed in sight not only intact but improved upon. Skip appears to have more fun singing than anyone you've ever heard, whether exclaiming in praise of the bird's song on opener "Eden Was a Garden" or extolling the anxiety of a crush in the infectious "A Heartbeat." Logan's warm electronic manipulations and casually perfect beats sit exactly where they should, while Timshel's luxuriating keyboard motifs alternate between drifts of nuance and the weight of ballast. All together, the Mathenys circumscribe an unlikely apex of Britpop and alt.country, big acoustic chords and strong Southern accents forming anthems that stick around the time of the second spin. FM radio parable and critique "Why Modern Radio is A-OK" chugs and smiles. Roman Candle turns a 14-line English sonnet into a young man's reverie on "Sonnet 46." "I Was a Fool," a coming-of-age, finding-a-soulmate paean, speeds and slows along a waltz's basic structure. Skip mines lyrical aphorisms ("The last thing we'll ever leave is a love song for this vacant room") and rich details (British hotels, N.C. folk singer Merle Watson, old Datsuns), connecting it all beneath refrains that stretch like the biggest canvases.
Skip enters the record's centerpiece, "Big Lights," solo, a lonely, lost singer strumming an acoustic guitar and asking for help. With each new verse and chorus, Timshel and Logan add an instrument, hopping behind his back and pushing him into a rock climax that suggests Sigur Ros' perfect splendor. They march as a unit, a family sticking together through the thick of big record labels or the thin of a small Nashville indie. The song is the best conquest, and, on Tall Tree, Roman Candle nails nearly all of them.
To be faithful to Tall Tree's central conceit—that, compared to the wonderful permanence and effect of a great tune, time is wasteful in its haste—Roman Candle's time at the threshold of the Next Big Thing, The Last Great American Rock Band might have passed. The band's getting older, settling into different life roles. But Tall Tree is an album of rich ideas and generous execution. All told, it's a marvelous, unique tale of resolve and results from any band—let alone one that had to fight this hard to get it made.
Roman Candle plays a release party at Cat's Cradle Saturday, May 9, at 9 p.m. Keegan DeWitt and The Deep Vibration open the $8-$10 show.