With an expanded seven-man lineup, Iowa-bred songwriters David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey have finally crafted the perfect backdrop to their wide-open sound.
Songwriters are odd creatures. The great ones rarely talk about their work, and those who do seldom say much worth hearing.
And then there are David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey, two of the best. The Pines co-leaders are happy to open up about their magically open-ended music. Yet they speak so casually and spike their comments with such aw-shucks, Iowa farm-boy humility that you forget you're talking to true, ascendant artists.
"There's such a fine line between writing confessional, personal songs that matter and ones that sound too self-important," Huckfelt said when asked about "If By Morning," a masterful breakup song he wrote for the new Pines record being celebrated Friday at the Cedar Cultural Center. "You need to write a song for yourself, but you need to write it big enough for it to resonate with everybody else. Really, that's how a sad song becomes redemptive."
The Pines ooze redemption. Titled "Dark So Gold," their new scarecrow-covered record dropped Jan. 31 via Red House Records -- the same day as an Electric Fetus in-store gig where the band's expanded, seven-man lineup had to cram into the store's small performance corner. One of the best things about the record, though, is how much space and quiet comfort is left inside the songs, even with all that all-star musicianship.
Bassist James Buckley explained the band's minimalist formula before the Fetus set: "When you have this many players, the trick is to hold back or else you'll have nowhere to take the music."
Buckley and drummer JT Bates -- both with jazz backgrounds -- became the Pines' unlikely rhythm section before the last record. Somewhere along the way, the band also recruited keyboardist Alex Ramsey (Benson's kid brother), banjoist Michael Rossetto (Spaghetti Western String Co.) and guitarist Jacob Hanson (Halloween, Alaska).
Talking before the Fetus gig over an order of ham balls at the Black Forest restaurant -- fodder for some crude humor befitting most musicians, never mind these dudes' elegant sound -- the Ramsey brothers and Huckfelt explained how the extra hands meant an extra level of carefulness while making "Dark So Gold."
"With these great players, it would've been so easy for us to go crazy and add so many layers," Huckfelt said, "but in the end we went with only using what's necessary to the song."
Once again, veteran guitarist and producer Bo Ramsey -- Benson and Alex's dad -- helmed the studio work, giving it a Daniel-Lanois-on-the-prairie kind of vibe. Benson's growing prowess as a mood-setting, groove-pocketing guitar player and Hanson's atmospheric techniques make it one of the subtlest guitar-hero records you'll ever hear.
Often, the band would build up arrangements only to strip layers away and edit down the music.
"We think of it like a sculpture," Benson said. "It's often not what you see that draws you in, it's what you don't see."
That description certainly fits "All the While," Benson's new masterpiece. There's no direct reference to death or dawn's light in it, but you'll easily recognize it as the song he wrote early one morning after finding out his grandmother had passed away. Benson also provides the album's title in the hopeful, lush penultimate song "Dead Feathers," in which he sings, "In the low and lonesome glow / We tremble in the bow echo / We lay awake in the dark so gold."
As always, the focal point of "Dark So Gold" remains the brotherly bond and troubadouristic spirit that Benson and David share as songwriters. They grew up a couple hundred miles apart in Iowa but famously met 1,500 miles away in Tucson, Ariz., where they were both searching for the same thing: something else.
"We met on a Sunday, and our first show together was on a Wednesday, playing mostly blues covers for three hours," Huckfelt recalled.
The cohorts moved back to the Midwest and wound up signing to Red House before their 2007 sophomore album. Now in their early 30s, they remain based in the Twin Cities, but Alex is currently living in Iowa, and Benson moved to Chicago with a girlfriend.
Of late, the Pines have spent as much time on the road as they have at home. Their most recent outing was a buzzed-about East Coast trek before Christmas with Mason Jennings. This capped off several years of gradual progress as a touring operation.
"We know our music is quiet, and it's not going to hit you over the head right away," Benson said. "It takes time for us to make an impression on people."
If you're one of those people who have been impressed throughout the Pines' patient evolution, consider "Dark So Gold" the payoff.
Random music notes...
Holly Newsom performs with one of her two new, rotating Zoo Animal lineups Saturday at 7th Street Entry to promote a new EP with Gospel Gossip, Gramma's Boyfriend and Is/Is (9 p.m., $10). Fittingly titled "Departure," the seven-song set -- streaming at www.suntanman.us -- actually started as a solo project with producer Grant Cutler (ex-Lookbook). It's rawer and even more oblique than her previous work, with haunted wind instrumentation by avant-garde jazzists Jon Davis and James Wallace and a couple of tracks that coolly sound like warped Tin Pan Alley records. ...
I Self Devine returns to the Entry on Sunday promoting the second installment of his free, four-part "Culture Series," a mixtape titled "The Upliftment Struggle" available via Rhymesayers. Ill Chemistry, Maria Isa and I.B.E. open the show (9 p.m., $10). ... Soul Asylum has signed a deal with 429 Records, a mid-size label with other veteran acts such as Robbie Robertson, Roberta Flack and Joe Cocker. Look for its new record by summer. ...
Considering they collected 1,000 pairs of socks for needy residents despite a snowstorm last year, the do-gooders at Rock the Cause have high hopes for their second annual Rock for Socks benefit concert Friday (9 p.m.) at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall with Pictures of Then, the Envy Corps, Apollo Cobra and Brooklyn's Pretty Good Dance Moves. Cover is $5 with a new pair or package of socks, or $12 without. ...
"A Prairie Home Companion" didn't have to look far to land its musical guests for the Feb. 25 live broadcast from Duluth's DECC Auditorium: Trampled by Turtles will preview tracks from its upcoming album for the show's 4 million listeners. ... Another Minnesota Public Radio production, the new "Daily Circuit" news show, has named Poliça's "Dark Star" its new theme song. Man, is that band blowing up, or what?