Fellow searchers

Olympia's Sawtooth blends Americana with a dose of awestruck weirdness

By Rev. Adam McKinney on January 25, 2018

When you hear terms like folk-rock, Americana, country, and roots music, the image that gets conjured in your mind is likely one of bearded, straight-laced, denim-clad ramblers. You might picture dusty roads that stretch off into the horizon, or dimly-lit saloons full of lost souls whiling away the hours with a shot and a beer. Something that doesn't get as much play with those genres is how neatly they pair with weirdoes, vagabonds, burn-outs and iconoclasts. Truly, there's more than enough room to play, in folk-rock and Americana, folding in elements like psychedelia, New Wave and spiritualism.

Olympia outfit Sawtooth is a band that recklessly tools with these art forms, as you may have guessed upon seeing the title of their outstanding 2015 album, Post-Americana. While all of the hallmarks of folk-rock, Americana and roots music are still there, Sawtooth is a band that is not content to rest on their laurels. The literate, story-obsessed prose of early Decemberists; the awestruck universalism of the Flaming Lips; the genre-skipping eclecticism of Dr. Dog; and the majestic folk-rock agnosticism of My Morning Jacket -- these are all influences that make themselves known in the work of Sawtooth. The Flaming Lips' hand can most tangibly be felt on Post-Americana's opening track, "Dead Dog Eyes," with its repeated refrain, "Do you realize that you have it pretty good these days?"

Sawtooth seems to be a fluid group, led by Stephen Smith, and most recently filled out by River Nason, Emily Metcalf, Tanner Dunn and Josh KoKo. Smith, a Texan who found himself making his home in Olympia, has that kind of voice that always seems to be searching for something -- for meaning, for a friend, for that perfect melody. Happily, he's frequently joined by a chorus of fellow searchers, lending Post-Americana the feeling of banding together in the face of a difficult world. Indeed, the album contains this dedication: "To anyone who has ever thought about hurtin' themselves over now seemingly silly feelings."

Track three is shaggy rambler "The River Because," the first highlight of the album. It's got a pleasantly chugging rhythm and a message about being willing to deal with the hardships of life, while also preferring to just go swimming for the hell of it. It reminds me of the sort of song that Paul McCartney would write for Ringo Starr, if you know what I mean. Here, even though the lyrics may be a little offbeat, it's backed up with standard Americana instrumentation, like violin, organ and twangy guitar, while still feeling like a new concoction.

On the nine-minute "Life is a Book," Sawtooth flex their more adventurous side. Working in movements, the song reminds me of the Decemberists' earliest stab at progressive compositions, the 10-minute "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade." In both songs, you're taken on a journey that does not, for all the length, ever drag or let your attention wander. As Smith sings, midway through the song, "Life's your favorite book, just go and turn the page; but don't go wasting yourself on the thought of change." This seems to be something of a mission statement for Sawtooth -- that life is a fascinating endeavor you've been thrust into, but you shouldn't sacrifice your happiness by wishing it were something more narratively. There's a push and pull between engagement and stasis, also echoed on "The River Because."

A recently released album of demos, Why We Are And Why We Are Not (Experiments), is a revealing look at Sawtooth in a stripped-down mode, as opposed to the lusher Post-Americana. What emerges is the truth of the band: at heart, no matter how big their sound, they remain searching for what may or may not be there.

Sawtooth, w/ Gabriel Mintz, Anna Gordon, 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 27, $5-$10, all ages, Cascadia Brewing Co., 211 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.943.2337