What They're Saying
"John and Rebecca Stoll used to record as "Westbound," and under that name, they released two fine albums: Blackjack Road, and Now & Then. They changed their name to "Grifters & Shills," but kept the sound. Why the name change? Probably, when you Google "westbound," they weren't exactly the first thing to come up. That matters nowadays. The important thing, though, is that they kept the basic sound. Mostly a duo, but with occasional accompaniment, they record a country/folk style punctuated by enough attitude for rock fans who like a little twang in their acoustic music. Even the ballads keep some edge. Vocally, Rebecca takes the lead most of the time, and if you like that Gillian Welch type of thing, she's in that general category, although she isn't quite the untouchable, goddess-on-earth that Gillian is. John, though, is a much flashier instrumentalist than Dave Rawlings. Whether that's good or bad depends on your taste. For me, it's hard to top Rawlings, but John Stoll doesn't really try. He's got his own thing, which involves a much more aggressive picking style, some fine, old-timey banjo and occasional electrification. Basically, then, this is what a lot of annoying Brooklyn hipsters want to be. Well-played, well-sung, aggressive country-folk."
“Watershed, the debut full-length record from Grifters & Shills, contains 15 original tracks that explore songwriting and roots music to their fullest. From the lighthearted whimsy in Cottonwood (with Kevin Hardin) to the socio-politically charged Bought & Sold (with Max Dyer), this duo spins a thorough tale full of clever lyrics and thought-provoking imagery.”
"This lovely album meanders its way through gentle but at the same time powerful folk songs, all of them written by John and Rebecca Stoll who actually are Grifter and Shills.
It’s almost too easy to say these are simple poetic tales but that is exactly what they are, not in the sense that no skill or effort are on display, more a question of getting to the point of their songs without any extraneous dressing or unnecessary colouration. The objective was obviously not to shock listeners by adding any false sense of drama, realizing that there is enough drama in everyday living which includes love, war, bringing up children, death and murder, without resorting to a punch in the guts! They choose instead to get their point over gently on this album that is at times genuinely thought provoking, even shocking but without resorting to wild histrionics, just simple melodies and evocative lyrics and vocals. As songwriters they have the ability to approach a variety of subjects from multiple angles and emotions without the poetic lyricism ever becoming to wordy or over the top, in fact, in a word, their music is ‘real.’
The couple who are based in Houston, Texas wrote all fifteen songs themselves and whilst this is their fourth recording it is only their second as Grifters and Shills (their first was an e.p) having formerly been known as Westbound with two albums being released under that name. The recording was produced by Brad Sayles and features Max Dyer on cello and Kevin Hardin on fiddle whilst John and Rebecca play everything else.
This is an album that flows rather than rocks although the tempos vary from slow and sedate to a gentle mid tempo and as each song blends into the next the impression is of a ‘concept album’ such is the beautiful flow. The sparse instrumentation is varied and expertly played, which along with the evocative vocals and expertly written music and lyrics brings a lovely diversity to an album that in many hands would simply have been labeled ‘pleasant folk music.’ Huge credit must go to the arrangements which ensure that despite the musics gentle flow, the listener is always kept wondering what will come next and even after numerous listening sessions the recording has still not become predictable. The subject matter on this generous fifteen song album runs from gentle love songs to intense murder ballads, each song a quite riveting experience; certainly not ‘background music!’
Album opener Cottonwood leads with acoustic guitar and fiddle into Rebecca’s lead vocal and John’s harmonies on a gentle tale that goes some way to summing up the complexities of relationships! On Our Best Days John takes lead lead vocal and Rebbeca is on harmonies with the addition of guitar and dominant fiddle on a lovely comforting familial tale added to by the eventual incursion of the atmospheric banjo. If ever a gentle folk song painted a picture of contentment this is it! In the case of Devil’s On My Side the acoustic guitar is joined by electric guitar and dobro on a mid tempo murder ballad that has quite a powerful intensity and a dramatic impact that is perhaps more forceful than what went before, ensuring the listener does not rest on his laurels! There is an atmospherically chiming banjo aided by fiddle on Hasn’t happened Yet giving the song an old hillbilly feel which is not lost when Rebecca’s lead vocal joins in, added to by John’s harmonies on a gently intense tale of deep love. On One More Day we are treated to a lovely haunting dobro intro on a gently dramatic tale of being stuck in a rut. It covers a variety of emotions that come with that situation, albeit performed with a gentility and beauty that belies the subject matter and yet the overall impression that remains is one of an intense mournfulness with the cello adding to the dramatic quality. Next we move on to Bought And Sold on which the banjo and cello combine to create a dark atmosphere and then their duet harmonies enter on a song that pretty much sums up the modern attitude and emphasizes the fact that we all lose sight of what should be important. Something most of us pay lip service to, but without actually reverting to what we know to be right. Another appropriately mournful sound! The album closes with Ain’t Meant To Last, another sad tale of lost love with Rebecca on lead vocal accompanied by guitar and cello on a song that shows a philosophical acceptance of the impermanence of life and love that in some ways extends to bemoaning our inability to see the future, although the only thing I can see in the future for this talented couple is success!
I don’t think I’ve heard an album that is as thematically reflective or as philosophical as this for a long time. It’s impact is multiplied by the fact that there is nothing forced, just a question of allowing the lyrics breathing space but ensuring the melodies are just as memorable. A beautiful album by a hugely talented duo."