“Mitakuye Oyasin” is a Lakota Sioux Indian mantra that is said when entering or leaving a sweat lodge. It means, very simply, “We are all related.” I believe it is this ethos that drives Brooklyn-based trio Backwords to make such welcoming, inclusive, melodic, and genre-transcending music.
First of all, to describe their sound: imagine a 1998 Modest Mouse having a threesome with The Beach Boys and Fleet Foxes, and this three-headed music lovechild marinated in a bottle of Old Grandad Whiskey — nine months later, Backwords would have been born. Their music contains a gritty, unwavering, raw guitar-shredding ability, mixed with gorgeous melodies and soothing vocals. Sprinkle in occasional use of the banjo, fiddles, and female backup vocals, and you’ve got yourself Backwords.
Their hooks are catchy and one of the most impressive aspects of seeing them live occurs when frontman Brian Russ steps away from the microphone, turns his back to the crowd, hunches over and absolutely demolishes his guitar strings. His ability to play the guitar turned me from a toe-tapping fan into someone convulsing uncontrollably in front of the stage at a Baltimore club.
Russ can shred and improvise; the guy can flat out play the guitar. And he is supported by an extremely worthy bassist, Tim Pioppo, who thumbs a Hofner semi-acoustic bass a la Paul McCartney and can turn a stand-up cello into a rift machine. Their phenomenal drummer, John Sheldon, rounds out the lineup. He isn’t afraid to jump into the pocket and tear into an army cadence that reminds me of beats provided by bands like The Turtles or The Mamas and the Papas.
Some background on the members: Russ was a born and raised in Philadelphia. After graduating college, Russ packed his bags, guitar, and harmonica and traveled to the poorest county in America, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota. Here, Russ was inspired to create the music for his soon-to-be-band. Pine Ridge represents one of the most severe dichotomies in America today; it lies in one of the most gorgeous ecosystems in the world containing the Black Hills, Badlands, and rolling buffalo-covered prairies. But in this awe-inspiring setting is the most impoverished corner of America with the worst mortality rate in the western hemisphere outside of Haiti.
Russ spent two years in Pine Ridge. In his free time, he would sit atop a cliff, penning music that embodied the teachings and philosophies of the Lakota medicine men he had befriended. He participated in Lakota Sioux rituals, like sitting for hours in agonizing heat-filled sweat lodges. Finally, he decided he wanted to express the strange world of Pine Ridge in musical form. Listening to Backwords’ sophomore album Quilt, it’s evident that the teachings and philosophies imparted on Russ in Pine Ridge stands tall in Backwords’ music.
Quilt is a follow-up to their first release The Buffalo Still Roam. The album opens with “And Then Sigh,” a confident, beautiful track that reminds me of early Pink Floyd. “In the Air & On the Ground” is a sweet tune led by a banjo rift, with fun harmonizing vocals and a fiddle solo in the middle that would make Charlie Daniels proud. “Better Off Alone” returns Backwords to their gritty guitar epicenter and is accompanied with female vocals that reminds me of The Dandy Warhols at their best. “Think of Me (As a Quilt Made Out of Stars)” is a 6+ minute tour de force that really highlights Backwords at its core. The song does not rely on the standard rock song equation, but changes melodies a half dozen times. It begins with a manic guitar rift analogous to Built to Spill and then absolutely dies down into a bluesy, psychedelic tune.
The title of this album, Quilt, embodies their style of music – taking many elements and creating one cohesive, warm, comforting product. Aside from buying Backwords’ music, I strongly suggest finding them in a city near you to witness their musical ability live. They would be happy to see you, because in the end, “Mitakuye Oyasin.”