The Restoration, CONSTANCE: A Review

(Image courtesy of The Restoration)

When my wife first told me about a year ago that we were going that night to West Columbia’s New Brookland Tavern to hear what a friend had described (inaccurately) as “a retro-Confederate band” known as The Restoration, I nearly laughed out loud. I anticipated a bunch of 20-something hipsters dressed up in well-worn reenactment scrubs, playing washboards, jugs, and mouth harps, and lamenting the Lost Cause. I imagined lyrics filled with a tortured and twisted sense of nineteenth-century history sung by ill-educated young men who couldn’t find a history book in the Carolina Room at the local library.

Man, was I wrong. The crowd that night at New Brookland (and the rest of the bill, for that matter) did The Restoration no favors, but what I saw absolutely blew me away. After hearing a half dozen cuts from their then-forthcoming album Constance, I realized that something far too big and bold for Columbia was happening. At the time, I knew little about The Restoration’s grand vision, but I also knew that what lay behind these songs was a complex universe that combines local and regional history, a remarkably sophisticated amalgam of nineteenth- and twentieth-century musical styles, and a rich throughline of a story that could break the heart of the most hardened cynic.

For the past few months, the full album of Constance (which was finally unleashed upon the South last April) has played nearly non-stop in our Virginia household. The album recounts the story of Constance Owen, a white Lexington County, South Carolina, native who is both blessed and cursed with the music that “is in my mind—Every moment, all the time,” a “gift from God” whose “visions and melodies follow me into my dreams.” In 1895, while still a young woman, Constance meets a mixed-race Chicago transplant named Aaron Vale, whose musical sensibilities are much like her own. They marry in spite of local social conventions and are soon blessed with a son, Thomas. But local hatred is too much for Aaron, whose employers, the Palmers, literally work him to death, then rob his family of their due. Years later, that racial hatred “all comes back ‘round again,” when Thomas tries, with only partial success, to exact his long-overdue revenge.

Constructed from multiple narratives and points of view, Constance tells us precisely what we need to know and nothing more, which is exactly as it should be in an album. For those who want more, however, there is The Constance Compendium, a separately available booklet that contains the full lyrics and “John Gilead Palmer,” a contextualizing short story by Daniel Machado, the creative genius behind The Restoration. Punctuated with stunning photography by Amber Machado, the compendium satisfies the craving that anyone with ears to hear will have after indulging in Constance’s many rich layers. And for a historian who is easily irritated by the reckless ignorance with which so many storytellers handle the details of our past, I was impressed with Machado’s attention to such matters and the ease with which he blends such details into his lyrics without diminishing their emotional clout or the power of his music.

Take, for instance, “August 1895,” in which Constance recounts the degree to which she has fallen for Aaron, marking her book with an asterisk for each of their encounters, all of which must end achingly as “I leave you in the trees again.” Backed by violin (Lauren Garner) and country timpani (Stephen Russ), Machado beats out Constance’s loving lament with an acoustic guitar and the shoes on his feet, daring you not to swoon, yet never once veering into the cloying insipidness that most love songs bring to mind. Or consider Aaron’s plea to “Constance” two tracks later, begging her, “Don’t let my music die with me. Don’t let it go into the ground with me.” Here the simplicity of “August 1895” is traded for something bordering on the orchestral, with Machado on acoustic guitar, banjo, and violin, backed by Garner on violin, Adam Corbett on bass, Sharon Gnanashekar on piano, Eddie Lord on drums, Russ on country timpani, tambourine, and cymbal, Collin Derrick on Wurlitzer organ, Kathryn Pollock on cello, and Joshua Williams on saxophone. The album builds to Thomas Vale’s account of “Drowning Mr. and Mrs. Palmer,” a track on which Machado’s eerie string arrangement serves as precursor to the anger—and horror—of Thomas’s effort to “wash you off this earth with all the evil things you’ve done in the name of Jesus.” As the Palmers sleep with “snores that shake two lazy chins and flabby jaws that two fat necks consume,” Thomas notes that “the cricket-buzz grows to a frenzy as I bring the levee down.” Even more horrific than this is the realization that Thomas got it only half right, and that whatever frustrations his neighbors might share with Thomas about the Palmers, Thomas’s racial background trumps any such concerns, as he and Constance both are reminded in the album’s final, blistering, and terrifying track, “The Lynching.”

Masterpiece is not a term I ever use lightly, but Constance is the real McCoy. My wife maintains a theory that artists get one big moment of brilliance, and everything that follows is a vain attempt to get back there again. I am more optimistic, although I will caution Machado and his band mates that the bar is now immeasurably higher for whatever will come next. My wife also says Constance is “like reading East of Eden or Light in August, except I get to turn it up really fuckin’ loud,” a sentiment that I completely understand. Constance is indeed a ribsticker. It has been so long since an album seeped into my consciousness in the silent moments of my life in the way that Constance has, still carrying me away when I am absent from its sound. Listen for yourself, and see if you are not changed by the experience.

The Restoration – Drowning Mr. & Mrs. Palmer – Live Studio Performance from The Restoration on Vimeo.


~ by ericplaag on February 20, 2011.

6 Responses to “The Restoration, CONSTANCE: A Review”

  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing Eric! The music is beautiful and the lyrics are quite chilling (literally gave me chills). What I really want to comment on is your writing! I do not like to read a single bit, I think you knew that about me already, but the first few lines on FB drew me in and I had to immediately visit your blog and read the entire thing. You are so talented Eric! Seriously amazing.

    • Thanks, Liz! And thank you for checking out the blog! I hope you get a chance to hear Constance all the way through soon.

  2. […] The Restoration, CONSTANCE: A Review […]

  3. Great review, Eric! They sound awesome!

  4. This is amazing stuff! Josh Ritter watch out…

  5. just happened up on your review by googling Constance and am completely amazed by your wonderful description of this work. thank you!

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