Florida band Have Gun, Will Travel make no bones about their fifth album, Science From An Easy Chair, being a good old-fashioned concept album. It’s fashioned around the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill fated 1915 attempt to cross the Antarctic, a venture which failed but with typical British aplomb was turned into a triumph as despite incredible hardship Shackleton and his men survived. An odd choice for an “alt-country” band from Florida to consider but apparently having written a song called True Believers Matt Burke sang it to his fiancé who thought the spirit of the song reminded her of a book she had read about the Shackleton venture. Burke read the book and transfixed decided to write some more songs based on the story eventually leading to the album as it stands. Having said that the album is not a linear telling of the story, rather Burke leads the band through the phases of the expedition, the gung ho we can do it bravado, the reality of being stuck in pack ice and losing their ship, the perilous journey thereafter and the eventual rescue with some songs descriptive, others impressionistic.
The good news is that the band are not shackled by the story and there’s no attempt to have a faux historical feel and no sea shanties. In fact, there’s little to differentiate much of the music here from their 2013 album, Fact, Fiction or Folktale other than the salty instrumentals Surrounded by the Pack and Fortifying The James Caird. Burke’s acoustic guitar and his voice lead the rhythm section while Scott Anderson’s excellent electric and lap steel guitars weave in and out throughout. There’s some extra layers in the form of mandolin, trombone, viola, trumpet, cello, harmonium and flute adding colour to the instrumentals and the opening (overture?) By Endurance We Conquer. Here the voice of Shackleton himself, setting out his aims, is accompanied by attractive rippling guitar and LA canyon harmonies before an insistent cello thrust adds some edge. On the remainder of the songs Have Gun, Will Travel manage to carry the thrust of the narrative while remaining distinctly an American band, singing about the frontier but this one’s the frozen south, not the Donner Pass. Spirit Of Discovery weighs in with some wicked lap steel on a supple Southern rocker that could have come from Tom Petty or the Drive By Truckers while True Believers belts along like a trucking song with the truckers replaced by a one for all and all for one shipshape lusty crew who bellow out the refrain over some turbo charged guitar licks. A banjo and wheezy accordion with sound effects breaks the mood as the ship is Surrounded By The Pack before the nervy thrust of Madhouse Promenade scoots into view. Another fast rocker it’s an adrenaline fuelled yelp which is variously frenzied and defiant as Burke sings
“this can’t be happening, won’t make it home again, we’ve got no chance of escape. We’re off the map again looks like we’ve reached the end, could this be our resting place?”
Despite this the defiant crew repeat their lusty refrain from True Believers and the explorers adjust to their predicament spending their time reading popular science essays of the time (a fact, they had a copy of biologist Ray Lankester’s collected essays which was called Science from an Easy Chair, hence the album title).
The album shifts mood thereafter reflecting the explorer’s experiences. As the ice pack eventually crushed and sank their ship they could only stand by and watch. The stoical farewell is captured to perfection on the sombre Goodnight Sweet Chariot with its curling guitars and organ fills. A beautiful song, its martial drumming and nod to the spiritual, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, summon up peril and death but the delivery is a delicate wonder and reminiscent of bands such as The Jayhawks and The Byrds (in Chestnut Mare times). There’s more delicate murmurings at the beginning of The Rescue Party which is a rich tapestry of guitars and slow weeping strings. The first step to rescue as Shackleton heads off for help, the song picks up pace towards the end as if the wind were carrying the song along with zephyrs of guitar spiralling upwards. For those left behind (read the story here for those who are lost by now) Despair & Redemption on Elephant Island imagines a Morricone styled exile with guitar shards firing over a desolate rhythm eventually giving way to an ecstasy of redemption as the crew again are able to sing their refrain. There’s a wonderful curtain call on the final song Bottom Of the World which retells the tale in summary with a fine folk like feel, spidery slide guitar and accordion along with a memorable chorus allowing it the sense that one might be in a tavern listening to one of Shackleton’s men recalling his adventure.
Overall Science From An Easy Chair is a bold adventure. There are songs in here that stand out well away from any concept with Goodnight Sweet Chariot the main contender. However there’s no denying the skill with which Matt Burke has woven the story into the songs (or vice versa) and at the very least having listened to the album and read the notes one is somewhat elucidated on a small part of polar exploration history. Apart from that it’s a crackingly good album.