Yester-d: “Gregor-Jotace Mission Cathedral” by Burnt Sienna Trio

Ever run across someone piloting a grill with just a knife and a fork? One hand sharp and deft, the other herding, deliberate and coaxing? A quick flick of sharp metal, a soft stab, a turn of a situation with the endgame a perfect fusion of subject and environment? This is kind of what Justin Collins does with his banjo, all the while kissed by the dry ember of his words.

Burnt Sienna Trio is a banjo-led band. And where ordinarily, such a phrase might conjure up some coffeehouse Lumineers masturbatory sketchbook, or worse yet, the inevitable bluegrass ‘jam,’ here it slays such stereotypes with the grace and aplomb of being just a step-and-a-half behind your older sister, putting a cover and a pat of red dirt on the tater eye she just dropped in the furrow.

However, let me make it clear that this is not a gimmick. Much like Mark Sandman accomplished with his saxophone in Morphine, Justin carries each turn of catgut like it belongs. Here, have a seat on the stoop, I’ll explain:

First of all, I have no idea where the title comes from. We can all Google, but I recommend hitting the Violitionist Session of BST for some interview-type jawing, but that’s not what I’m here for. I wanna clue you in on this sound, man. This twangy, virry Denton, soul-filled ear candy. 

The album opens with the simple ponderance “Have I Been Kind?” and that song opens the door for y’all to come sit in on the rest of it. Telling us about “One thing in the back of my mind” is a heavy start, but the tone of the song is one of firing up the grill, knowing that everyone will bring beer, but only the invited are savvy enough to bring ice. The stage is set, so the situations follow. And BST abruptly downshifts, so be warned. “Sasa Zamani” starts in slow motion, but with a car wreck. “I had the left side/tore off my body” weaves us into a treacle of like-minded tragedy, but only with as much victimhood of running into your ex at a mutual friend’s wedding. Here, so far, low-key is the only key, but it somehow turns to a wry smile in “High and Low.” Purposefully lazy, but driven by a steady Nashville heartbeat on the trap behind Justin’s monotone, it’s all combining in a promise that this car’s just warming—it ain't slow.

And it revs. BST is a Cadillac. A half-injun grandmother of a driver, taking no shit and telling a hundred ways to do it. It is a lumbering glide to El Paso via Louisiana. “On Demand” jumps to us with that lead banjo that we are learning is “dangerous at any time of day,” and as we cruise, as we catch our drift…it just stops. The first third of this album pulls up hard and stops, I say—like the slam of a piano lid where your first thought is, “Were there fingers involved?” That is the nature of this band, though: are you paying attention enough to pay attention to something else really quick? It is very much a backyard, dusktime grill of a record, asking about your beer, your lawn, the meat, that girl, that other guy, the Rangers, the bar the other night, got a light, should I buy that guitar, which Cholula…and all the while, the smoke of the event drifts and settles on every word and listener.

But now that you’re in, this is where the flavor of the album begins to smolder. This is where the Ghost of Hunter Thompson buys John Wayne a beer on Tom Wait’s tab: “Prelude for Theme From Little Bermuda,” which of course finds the band cutting loose in stride. The trio is both-sides sharp, and Justin lets his voice off the leash, setting us up perfectly for the other great hook on this album—the ‘ooh woo’s of “Sir Richard (Reprise).”

“Old News” is perfect, too. It is a hungover brunch of a song. BST gives us that now-familiar ramble up and around into the acerbic chorus of “If you ever hear your lady talkin' bout some old news,” and you’ll find yourself rewinding, and nodding in a pang of empathy. And, as always, Justin’s words remain sardonic, but not shitty. This is a great example of his bite in wordsmithing and is consistently punctuated by the sounds crafted behind it. The delivery, a talk song like getting out of a speeding ticket, is more than well-represented here in every turn of phrase.  

Then “100 Dollar Car” rolls up. The drum clicks along perfectly like a car low on oil. At first you’d think maybe it’s a trainbeat, but if you’ve ever had a $100 car, then you can’t hear it any other way. The lyrics weave in and out ‘tween the beat of the drums and the mono-strumming of that banjo like some loose steering.  A nice comfortable ride, but maybe not a safe one….

The last half of the album is as shiny as a thrift store spoon, and Justin has plenty to tell you still. His plaintive warble and drone easily give us our “Last Kind Words,” and drop a bit deeper into poetically-delivered despondency with “Three On The Floor”—both darkside, bar-neighbor anthems reminiscent of the drunk hero of Slobberbone’s “Pinball Song,” but the last real gem in this day-after-Mardi-Gras crown is “No Time, Lover.”

“Like to sit on the patio and smoke a rolled cigarette/No matter what I do I know that one thing is true/I don’t have time to be your lover” says it all. “No Time, Lover” is the other side of Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, organically delivered with casual perfection over that banjo and heartbeat. Stay with me, now. Here it plucks, while the drums pace a clock, then a soft crash as the banjo strums again—all the while iced-over just a bit with Justin’s dry & wry love for a pain he doesn’t carry, just gives a lift home to.

You’ll find this record to be a perfect alarm clock to herald that anti-sunrise of the last rays through the trees of your backyard. It is not just the banjo that sets it apart from other (forgive me) “Denton folk,” but the soaking of bourbon and a splash of New Weird America that is championed by the likes of our other beloved Baptist Generals, the criminally underplayed Dust Congress, and maybe an echo of Ethyl Meatplow, or even Josh T. Pearson while he’s visiting Earth from Planet Texas. And if the banjo part turns you off before you give it a chance, well, to quote my Hell-billy brother Joely: “You’re wrong.” It is wonderful, and valid, and you need it. There, I said it. You need more banjo. Git thee hence.

Both Burnt Sienna Trio albums are available on Bandcamp, and you may also find Justin Collins behind the dials of the Satisfactory Recording Company, and musically kickin' it most recently and righteously in The Raised Right Men.