You Win is a very easy album to love. The Southern folk stylings of Brice Randall Bickford II, otherwise known as the Strugglers, have been compared with some of the best in the business including Sun Kil Moon, Smog, Will Oldham and Iron & Wine. Yet, what makes the album stand apart from those of its peers is Bickford’s voice. It’s as if Bickford’s vocal chords were sewn together into a Frankenstein’s monster-like project out of the best pieces of Eddie Vedder, Pete Yorn, Adam Duritz and Brad Roberts (of Crash Test Dummies). Ultimately, your own enjoyment of this album will rest on whether or not you like that concept, despite the wonderful musicianship of his rotating band of backups and his remarkably spare yet thought-provoking lyrics.
The album opens with lone quiet acoustic guitar, leads to Bickford’s signature voice, then builds up into a big chorus. The Eddie Vedder comparisons begin here as the first line, “You fold up the rejection letter,” sounds like a slowed down version of “Don’t call me daughter.” Otherwise, the sereneness of the music of the song makes it sound like a Nick Drake affair. Drums, strings and backup vocals crash in and act as the signal for the start of a significant record. “I Am Racing Down One Path” traverses the paths of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, making pastoral darkness palatable.
Like most great folk, it is the core instruments of the genre that take center stage, with the rest acting as flourish. Bickford’s gentle acoustic guitar strumming, piano playing, and yes, even drumming, are what act as the pole star, while strings, mandolins, banjos and Hammond organs add a decorative touch. If he were to rely on the accessories rather than the quality of the music and words, like in Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” the center cannot hold. But when songs appear as “The Cascade Range,” a catchy, smart and introspective track, everything else seems to fall into place around it. It is the most Yorn-esque song on the album, poppy and accessible, but still remains true to Bickford’s Southern folk vision. “I Tried to Repair” is another songs that I would be remiss not to mention, featuring the soft female vocal backgrounds of Heather McEntire. “Distant Demands” begins with a twanging guitar similar to that in Stephen Stills’ classic “For What It’s Worth,” but takes on a dark turn with the deep sounds of the cello.
You Win is perfectly named, as is Bickford’s chosen moniker. His songs are full of struggle, for love, peace, sense of the world, etc. But we are the ones who win with all his struggling. This is an album full of brilliant songcraft, musicianship, and writing. Again, however, it is Bickford’s voice that will be the deciding factor for you, despite his other accomplishments. It’s, forgive the pun, a struggle at first to try to stop picking out just of what his voice might remind you, but once you get over that, you can merely let it all wash over you, bathing you in its delicate beauty.
Pearl Jam- Vs.
Counting Crows- Recovering the Satellites
Pete Yorn- Day I Forgot