by Sean McAlindin
San Rafael string band Late for the Train’s debut album, Plant It or Build It, is a beautiful collection of peculiarly romantic songs full of thoughtful lyricism, stirring instrumentals and sweet harmonies.
The opening track, “Sang Through the Summer,” is all about celebrating an ephemeral twinkling of bliss before it’s gone. It’s a fitting introduction for the band fronted by Marin County troubadours Laura Benson and Dave Pascoe, who share a penchant for wandering roads less traveled while loving each magical moment along the way.
The voices of Benson and Pascoe blend like gypsy souls who’ve found a home in each other’s musical arms. They met at an open mic night in a Northern California living room on Halloween night, 2017. Benson was dressed as Rosie the Riveter in bright red lipstick; Pascoe, in cheetah pants, saw her sing to a rapt, silent room. As the party wore on, they both got out their fiddles and started jamming on Celtic tunes. The rest is history, as they now live and create together from their home in San Rafael’s Gerstle Park neighborhood.
What begins with deft Appalachian flatpicking quickly hints at something more on Plant It or Build It. Through all 10 songs on the album, their voices contrast and meld with a fascinating and plaintive authenticity harkening back to older times while keenly observing those of today.
The album was recorded by Ky Takikawa almost entirely live during a four-day session in a remote, two-story concrete-and-glass house hidden under Bixby Bridge in Big Sur.
Tracking days began early with a family breakfast and ended well beyond midnight underneath the California stars. During breaks, the band walked an overgrown singletrack path alongside the creek to jump into the roiling ocean and wash away their blues.
Flawless mastering by The Wailin’ Jennys’ soundman Adrian Dolan shines as the first side of the record ends with the one verse of traditional acapella, “Bright Morning Stars.” The harmonies of this song about staying up all night surround your ears as you long for more.
Side two begins with “The Architect,” a song about what it takes to make a life in this contemporary day and age. Jack Johnson meets Ani DiFranco as Pascoe and Benson ask listeners, “Are you the architect or the gardener of your life?”
The album closes with “Paper Smiles,” a lovely composition about being the black sheep of the family, the one destined to roam the countryside looking for a little love and decent song.
“Me, I play the sounds of lovers lost and freedom found,” the band sings on the closing track. “So I can hold them close, the ones I love the most.”