Since the time when Letitia Vansant released “Breakfast Truce” (review here) in 2012, the Baltimore-based songstress has expanded her band to comprise a trio of male musicians, including Tom Liddle, Will McKingley-Ward, and David McKindley-Ward. Known collectively as Letitia Vansant and the Bonafides, the group released their first joint effort entitled “Parts & Labor” today. The new album still resonates with Letitia’s folksy sound and her heart for social justice but shows greater depth and complexity with the inclusion of the Bonafides.
With “Parts & Labor,” Letitia Vansant and the Bonafides strike the perfect balance, treasuring both the old and the new in equal measure. To the casual listener, some of these songs might sound like tracks off one of grandma’s old bluegrass records. Belying the traditional folk sound, however, are the group’s acutely relevant lyrics, tackling head on some of the modern world’s most pressing issues, and an infusion of cross-genre influences. Vansant excels in metaphor, subtly channeling this skill into nearly every track but never to the point of exhaustion. This group of talented musicians blurs the boundaries between folk, country, bluegrass, and americana with effortless ease. The dichotomy between their old-fashioned leanings and the incredibly current, spot-on content of their lyrics makes this compelling album quite the rare find.
“Parts & Labor” deals largely in human heartache and suffering. But Vansant and the Bonafides approach heavy topics as varied as terminal illness, environmental degradation, poverty, and homelessness with a deep empathy rarely seen in the musical arts. The album is like a series of intimate portraits, each one highlighting the story behind a particular type of struggle. Taken as a whole, the tracks from “Parts & Labor” issue a sharp challenge to the notion that we are all simply disposable cogs in an indifferent machine, an image that Vansant brilliantly plays on throughout the album.
“Step in Line” opens the album with plucky banjo sounds, the twang of the slide guitar, and intriguing harmonies. Singing of the monotony of endless days spent working, the band likens time consumed with labor to a prison in lyrics like “the lines on the calendar are the bars on my cage.” But this tune also speaks to the promise of escape and the “green pastures of plenty” that await, an undercurrent of hope that finds refrain throughout the entirety of this album.
The first track I ever heard from “Parts & Labor” was “Rising Tide,” a song featured on Baltimore’s local independent station WTMD with gusto. Though track deals with the heartache of cancer, Vansant makes strong allusions to the profit over people mentality that wreaks devastation through means as varied as chronic illness, violence, and greed. The song swells to a beautiful, plaintive cry in which all members of the band join: “I am a cog in this machine that ruins lives of people unseen/I can’t stop it but Lord let me try/It’s a sad sad feeling comes to visit at night.” Not only are these lyrics endowed with beauty and hope, they’re delivered on the back of a remarkably unforgettable melody. One of the things I find so compelling about Vansant is her advanced wisdom, and the track’s most resonant line comes as she sings about acquiring that very thing: “As a measure of time, well, what good is age/It takes so many years to learn to hold on the days.”
There are plenty of remarkable tracks on this release, like “Tea Still Sweet,” a ballad that meditates on our increasingly urban nature, the resultant longing we feel for the countryside and the damage done to our family ties, and “When I Was Your Age,” a song full of nostalgia for an irretrievable past long before the singer’s own lifetime and ripe with regret about a lost future we can never hope to recover. But in my humble opinion, “Parts & Labor” is the showcase track off this album. I never thought a song with such a highly developed social conscious could be as gorgeous as this record’s title song. Every aspect of this ballad feels heavy and exhausted, the band’s mournful playing a perfect complement to Letitia’s weary vocals. While this may not sound like the stuff of conventionally beautiful music, I love that the song itself so perfectly reflects the feelings Letitia’s lyrics evoke as she meditates on injustice, her heart burdened by the way we take the comforts of our lives for granted. She considers the laborers down the lines of production that yield these comforts, a population far too often overlooked in all mediums of art. Letitia poignantly captures the tragedies of inequality and helplessness on “Parts & Labor” with lines like: “Is there anywhere on God’s green earth that I can pull my weight/A place for everyone and everyone in his place” and “I built a house of mud and straw/It cracked in the freeze and thaw/So I retreat on my knees/To the city I withdraw.” And like any great work of art, each time I revisit this song it reveals yet another layer of depth and beauty.
Then there’s “Go Darling,” the tongue-in-cheek tune of a deserted husband hoping for his “ungrateful woman” to return home. Armed with the knowledge that this was a song about marital abuse, the lightness of this little ditty surprised me at first. Letitia’s clever composition plays from the naively optimistic perspective of the bad husband, his false confidence reflected in the track’s upbeat tempo and carefree feel. While decrying his wife’s domestic shortcomings, the husband fails to do a single thing for himself in her absence, believing she will be back any minute. Lyrics like “Go darling go, it’s a long lonesome road/But the fire in your heart, and the trouble it would start/Would burn this old house down” hint that the struggles this broken woman will undoubtedly face for leaving are far less than what would come to pass if she returned home. It’s a refreshing variation on the classic country themes of a broken heart and desertion.
Despite the heaviness of the subjects Vansant and the Bonafides boldly tackle, there is still a strain of optimism through the end. The final track “Promised Land” critically examines the fearful way that we isolate ourselves from one another: “We’ve all been told there’s not enough for everyone/We guard what we hold dear with laws and with guns/Instead of all these walls, let’s build the kingdom come.” The brilliant simplicity of the song’s final two lines proposes a return to a more communal and generous time: “Now we build our own house/One with no walls that will shelter us all.” Part traditional folk ballad, part incisive social commentary, “Promised Land” is the perfect conclusion to a record so evenly steeped in both the modern and the days of yore.
The album is available today. Learn more about how to get your hands on a copy here.