I was never more surprised than when I saw the self-titled album Burlap to Cashmere on a recent list of Top 100 best albums of 2011. I knew this band. Discovered by an agent who heard them playing in a New Jersey coffeehouse, Burlap to Cashmere had independently released a live record in 1997 and the following year signed with A&M to release their major label debut, Is Anybody Out There? (an award-winning unconventional Christian music album). Within a few years, they had disappeared without a trace. They were a high-energy folk/rock band with a unique sound, thanks to the band’s talented songwriter and lead singer, Steven Delopoulos, and his cousin’s (John Philippidis) quick-fingering flamenco guitar riffs. That combination created their one-of-a-kind Mediterranean-influenced folk/rock sound of Greek rhythms and world beats that reflected their Christian Greek Orthodox heritage.
That was 13 years ago. Now an album bearing their name appears on a 2011 best albums list and I’m thinking it must be a re-issue or something. But, no. It is indeed a brand new album with 11 brand new songs. And it is creating quite a stir:
“If this band stays together, and Delopoulos is allowed to grow and not become a victim of the corporate machine, he could go down as music’s first truly great writer of this century. It’s a shame that he’s labored in obscurity into his 30s, but there’s still time. Burlap to Cashmere is one of the best records of 2011.” – American Songwriter Magazine.
“…a largely acoustic album of sumptuous and exotic melodies, tight harmonies and poetic lyrics. Producer Mitchell Froom sweeps away the clutter, allowing chief songwriter Steven Delopoulos to carve a niche with graceful, vivid global-folk. — Edna Gundersen, USA Today.
Prior to their vanishing act, Burlap to Cashmere had toured heavily, gaining enthusiastic support from Christian and secular fan bases alike, but the intense schedule took its toll. The band broke up in 2001 and its members disbursed to pursue separate pathways. Only Delopoulos remained active in a musical career, releasing a couple of solo albums. Then in 2004 the cousins Delopoulos and Philippidis began working on some new songs and considered recording again. They landed a small demo deal with Warner Brothers and had finished recording three or four songs to that end when their plans were brought to an abrupt halt. On the way home from a Manhattan studio recording session, Philippidis was involved in a minor fender bender and became a victim of road rage when the occupants of the other vehicle badly beat him and fled the scene, leaving him for dead. Philippidis suffered a broken nose and fractures to his jaw and eye socket. Doctors medically induced a coma to alleviate pressure on his brain. When Philippidis awoke from the coma a month later, news reports relate the reflection he saw in the mirror was “one of a closed eye, a head the size of a basketball and his face disfigured beyond what he thought could ever be repaired.” Doctors replaced his facial orbits, forehead and jawline with titanium implants and reconstructed his nose and sinuses.
Needless to say, music took a back seat to the slow process of recovery. Delopoulos gave aid and emotional support to his injured cousin throughout the ordeal, travelling from New Jersey nearly every weekend. They sat and played X-box video games together instead of playing music. Doctors were not sure if Philippidis would play the guitar the same way due to the damage he sustained, but assured him over time his brain and nerves would reconnect. Eventually, Delopoulos began testing out a few new song ideas with Philippidis, and over time Philippidis nervously picked up his guitar. A song began to take shape and became one of the tracks for the new album (“Orchestrated Love Song”). Once Philippidis became convinced his fingers could still move, progress slowly began to roll again for more new compositions. While home from London for a visit, Burlap to Cashmere’s original drummer, Theodore Pagano, heard some of the songs the cousins were working on and it wasn’t long before he, too, was on board. Pagano’s organizational and driving force eventually landed them another major record label deal more than a decade after their first one.
The timing seems to have been perfect. During the band’s 13-year absence, new bands such as Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes emerged and have steadily gained popularity with a similar blend of “worldly folk” to what Burlap to Cashmere was doing all those years ago. The fields are ripe for picking and Burlap to Cashmere intends to reclaim their turf. With the core players of the original band intact and their collaboration with acclaimed producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow, Los Lobos, Tom Waits), that shouldn’t be hard to do.
The new album, released in July 2011 on the Jive/Essential Records label, still has the fire and excitement of Is Anybody Out There?, with occasional ‘la, la, la, la-eee’s’, syncopated ‘hey, hey, hey’s’ and trademark flamenco guitar runs still present, but the sound is more organic and mature this time around. The band’s website quotes Froom’s approach to recording the new album as: “There would be no nudging and no auto-tuning. We’re going into this to capture everything that’s organic about the band…For me, Burlap to Cashmere is a classic band in the best sense of the word. From the great songwriting and singing, to the deep and accomplished musicianship, they are absolutely a distinctive band…We also set out to make a record that put musical feeling and performance at a premium – live singing and playing, no click tracks, etc.”
A full spectrum of old and new sounds are included. “Love Reclaims the Atmosphere,” “Tonight,” and “Don’t Forget to Write” are strongly reminiscent of the early harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel, while others are reminiscent of classic American folk, such as “Life in a Van,” a song about a band’s life on the road, and “Hey Man,” with a very catchy chorus and lyrics that also refer to a band’s road trip to the next gig, although both songs are cleverly written with a second layer of meaning. “Closer to the Edge,” one of my favorites, is a song about finding the courage to live confidently in an uncertain world. “Orchestrated Love Song,” and “Santorini” are heavily steeped in the band’s signature sound of Greek rhythms. “Build the Wall” is the hardest rocking song of the bunch, with lyrics that use an analogy between the unhappy life of a female star on the verge of hoping to arise out of the ruins of her messed-up life and the biblical Nehemiah who repairs the breached wall of Jerusalem amidst hostile enemies who wish to do him harm.
Although the overt references to Christianity that were prominent on Is Anybody Out There? are missing on the sophomore release, there remains a subtle but unmistakable spirituality in the music. The closing gem, “The Other Country,” is somewhat more direct, bringing the album to a passionate and beautiful ending with a reference to the 23rd Psalm (I see the other country / I see the other side / Do not be afraid of this earthly city / Do not be afraid when the pharaoh’s nigh / Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death / Even though I sink through the ocean / You will rescue me / I am standing in the fire / But I can hear the choir singing / I was a blind man stumbling / But now I see). Delopoulos aimed for a Marley-type hymnal feel when writing “The Other Country,” an endeavor undertaken when he was invited to submit a song for possible inclusion in the film, Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The song didn’t make it onto the official soundtrack, but it is a beautiful work and it is easy to envision it being performed live in front of an audience caught up in the moving chorus, singing along with the band with uplifted arms swaying to and fro.
For snippits of most of the songs from the album, see Burlap to Cashmere’s full promotional trailer.
This is 21st-century folk rock music at its best. Don’t be left behind (no pun intended).
Kezzie Baker lives in the heartland of America and if there’s one thing she likes better than listening to all kinds of music, it’s talking about it. There are just way too many truly great artists that never receive the notoriety they deserve. She tries to do what she can to change that by spreading the word around to anybody who will listen.
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