The Strugglers – You Win

There are some bands that catch your attention but don’t really grab it. They flirt at the ends of your consciousness, perhaps teasing you with a strong song or two on a compilation, but for some reason you don’t grasp just how good those bands are. And so you miss them until a new album lands in your hands and causes you to smack your head in disgust for waiting so long … and then seeking out the back catalogue you let slip through your hands all that time.

That’s the case for The Strugglers, a project of singer/songwriter Randall Bickford II and a rotating cast of contributing musicians. Bickford teased me with a song on one of Spanish label Acuarela’s compilations, and I even gave the band’s first album a cursory listen, finding it enjoyable but not particularly memorable. With the band’s third release, You Win, however, I’m forced to seek out those earlier albums, because this one is genius.

Bickford has one of those voices that is instantly memorable. It’s rough at times, cracking at others, but it’s always strong and emotionally resonant. The music on You Win is quieter, indie-folk-related stuff, akin to that of Smog or Mark Kozelek’s work with the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. But this isn’t just a voice and an acoustic guitar. The songs here are rich, filled with subtle instrumentation and a rich production quality that gives every tune a depth and breadth that creates a wonderful accompaniment to Bickford’s moving, emotionally charged lyrics.

The opening track, “Rejection Letter,” is one of my easy favorites here. Starting out quiet, with acoustic guitar and very subtle percussion to back up Bickford’s strained lyrics about rejection, the song adds cello and electric guitar, increasing in intensity just to end quickly. The strings on “Being Shown Blues” are truly an inspired touch, and “The Disappeared” uses piano as a perfect accompaniment to the acoustic and electric guitar. Female vocals courtesy of Heather McEntire add a unique flair to “I Tried to Repair,” mixing with some astoundingly sweet lyrics and Bickford’s deeper tenor to result in a song that’s a mix of love song and love-gone-wrong song. The closing title track runs for eight minutes, featuring Bickford’s voice at its most vulnerable with just piano for accompaniment until the acoustic guitar comes in near its end, as Bickford repeats, “Every year is a critical year … when you win.”

Other songs are more country inspired, such as the lighter-feeling “Racing Down One Path,” or sparse, moody tracks, such as the more folky “Necrophilia.” Quieter tracks like “Being Shown Blues” remind me of my impression of earlier Strugglers’ material. They’re moody, rich in tone but light in approach, and Bickford’s voice truly stands out as unique on songs like these. And more upbeat songs, such as “The Cascade Range” and “Distant Demands,” are more reminiscent of Magnolia Electric Co. The latter is easily the album’s most intense moments, as soaring electric guitar and rich strings mix and lead the song through a lengthy but flowing conclusion.

I get the feeling I’m not the only one who failed to notice Bickford’s genius. He’s a subtle singer/songwriter, and his songs represent that. He’s on a label based in Spain (but with an impressive US distribution). Still, that’s no excuse, and I’m frustrated by my own inability to give his earlier albums the attention they deserved. Fortunately, You Win grabbed my attention at last. This is a truly wonderful album that catapulted to my top-10 list for 2005, and it’s highly recommended. Now to track down his earlier releases, Done By and The New Room.