When you return to a garage to pick up your car after repairs, you are handed a bill for “parts and labor.” The “parts” are things like spark plugs and oil-drain pans, while “labor” is the hours spent by the mechanics. But you seldom see the mechanics at work, so it's tempting to think of the gadgets and workers as interchangeable cogs in the great machine that keeps society running.
“Parts & Labor,” the new album from Letitia VanSant & the Bonafides, fights that temptation with all the considerable skill and passion the folk-rock band's four members can muster. The ten original songs—eight by lead singer Letitia and two by drummer Will McKindley-Ward—work hard to illuminate the workings of privilege by removing the invisibility of the human cogs in the machine, to give them the distinct personalities and irrefutable dignity that should be their birthright. These songs proclaim that we are all much more than parts and labor to the machine of our economy.
They do so not only through the lyrics’ evocative dramas but also through the give-and-take between traditional acoustic instruments and their buzzing electric successors. Out of that negotiation emerge striking melodies, and when those tunes blossom into four-part harmonies, it’s as if a solitary voice has become a community.
Baltimore’s Letitia (known offstage as Sandy Robson) released a lovely indie folk album, “Breakfast Truce,” in 2012, that showcased her intimate vocals and poignant songwriting. In the wake of that recording’s local success, she formed a band with Will, who had played on “Breakfast Truce,” his guitar-playing brother David McKindley-Ward and Tom Liddle, their bass-playing neighbor in Mount Rainier, Maryland. Calling themselves the Bonafides, the four musicians created a sound that straddled the border between acoustic and electric, between folk and rock, between ancient and modern.
The catalyst for those songs arrived when a man named Jimmy knocked on Letitia’s door in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood one morning. He had walked nearly eight miles to return the driver's license that Letitia’s friend had lost during the band's show the previous evening down by the city’s harbor. Jimmy knew how important a license can be, because he had worked as a truck driver before an illness robbed him of his job, his savings, his home, and most of all his sense of self-worth. For Letitia, who works for a peace and social justice advocacy group in Washington, the specificity and emotion of this man's story struck home.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could find a way to make this guy's story available to more people,’” she says. “The policy world has a necessary focus on theories and statistics, but theories and statistics rarely change people's minds. The world needs more exploration of the emotional side of these issues. And I realized that that's what music can do. I had always hesitated to write songs about social justice because I didn’t want to sound self-righteous when I don’t have any more answers than anyone else.”
The breakthrough song became the title track for this album. Letitia sings not from Jimmy’s perspective but from her own, wondering whether there is a way that can create a place for everyone in our economy. She ends the song with parallel images of hope and despair: Someday ringing bells will announce a utopia where everyone is equal at the same table, but in the meantime, “all we are is parts and labor to this engine's indifferent hum.” That balancing act is echoed by the arrangement's push-and-pull between the acoustic and electric guitars and by the hints of empathy and anguish in the chorus's lovely, high melody.
The song set the template for the rest of the album. There are numbers about abusive husbands (“Go Darling”), poisoned water (“Push My Rock Up Forever Blues”), vanishing family ties (“Tea Still Sweet”), the experience of homelessness (“Caught Between the Times”), climate change (“When I Was Your Age”) and cancer (“Rising Tide”). What’s remarkable about these musical stories is that they don’t try to coerce a particular response from the listener; they create a scene and characters—as much through the music as through the words—and invite the listeners to come inside and draw their own conclusions.
released February 27, 2015
Step in Line - recorded & mixed by Alex Champagne of Scenic Route Recordings at Negative Space Studios. TL on harmonium, WMW on slide guitar.
Rising Tide - recorded & mixed by Chris Freeland at Beat Babies Studio
Tea Still Sweet - recorded & mixed by Steve Steckler at Asparagus Media.
Master Plan - recorded & mixed by Steve Steckler at Asparagus Media. Ahren Bucheister on pedal steel.
Caught Between the Times - written by Will McKindley-Ward, recorded & mixed by Steve Steckler of Asparagus Media.
Parts & Labor - recorded & mixed by Alex Champagne of Scenic Route Recordings at Negative Space Studios. DMW on piano.
Push My Rock Up Forever Blues - written by Will McKindley-Ward. Recorded by Steve Steckler at Asparagus Media.
Go Darling - Recorded by Will McKindley-Ward, mixed by Steve Steckler at Asparagus Media. Fiddle by Anna Roberts-Gevalt.
When I Was Your Age - recorded by Nicholas Sjostrom at Clean Cuts Studio.
Promised Land - recorded by Will McKindley-Ward, mixed by Steve Steckler at Asparagus Studio. WMW on resonator guitar.
All songs mastered by Randy LeRoy of Airshow Mastering, Inc.
Album art by Katherine Fahey of 2 Hawks 2 Fishes.
Layout and design by Scott Dennison.
Some rights reserved. Please refer to individual track pages for license info.