I miss Havalina Rail Co. This might not be a band you know, nor do you care about this band – but you should. Havalina Rail Co. (aka Havalina) in their ten or so years were an amazing band, always willing to take chances, and always produced something interesting. What genre was Havalina? Well – that’s complicated – it depended on the album. Back in the days where I logged all my CDS in an access database, I had to put a genre for each artist. For Havalina, I just said “Whatever they feel like doing that album.” That’s what made Havalina Rail Co. such a special band – they never committed to a specific genre or style. Join me as I explore their somewhat short, but interesting catalog.
Havalina Rail Co. (1994)
Havalina’s Rail Co. first, self-titled album, is a sprawling 19 track mess – but a good mess. The songs on this album find inspiration from swing, jazz, ska, and so much more. The opening track, “Ragtime,” is a rockabilly and very danceable number that would have fit into Elvis Presley’s catalog seamlessly. The second track, “One Day,” might be the most ska influenced track with it’s blaring horns and reggae influenced beat. “Grass Roots” presents a nice, medium tempo, country song. “French Theme” sounds, well, French….
Bouncing from one genre to another, and back again, on “Havalina Rail Co.” seems to have set the tone for the rest of the band’s career. Havalina’s first album tells their fans “hang on tight, this is going to be a bumpy ride, and you just don’t know where we’re going!” And they were right – the rest of their career was a bumpy ride. However, the ride was bumpy like a roller coaster, and not like a pothole stricken road. The bumpy ride was fun!
Diamond in the Fish (1996)
Havalina’s sophomore release, Diamond in the Fish does something different. This time, Havalina Rail Co. adds a theme to their album. Diamond in the Fish sounds like a soundtrack for a spy movie, circa the 1950s. Each song provides a portion of the narrative. There’s a love interest, as expressed by “If I Did Not Love You.” “Ballad of a Spy” shows this love interest that our main character has a double life – he’s a globetrotting spy. We have a party scene, as shown by Havalina’s cover of “Paper Moon.” “Ron” shows the spy, and possibly his love interest, crossing the desert on a mission, riding a donkey. The Spy’s love breaks it off in “No Brainer.” Finally, in “Banditos,” we find the spy chasing the protagonists of the story – assumingely catching these “Banditos.”
When “Diamond in the Fish” originally came out, a lot of fans didn’t seem to like the album. Perhaps they were expecting more swing and ska, like the self-titled release. Perhaps the fans just didn’t get the whole spy/fly soundtrack thing. Regardless of the lackluster response, “Diamond in the fish” goes even further to set the tone for future Havalina Rail Co. albums. And honestly – while Diamond in the Fish was/is not my favorite album, I feel I appreciate the album a little more every time I listen.
Russian Lullabies (1997)
Havalina Rail Co.’s third album, “Russian Lullabies,” certainly feels like a musical departure from the band’s previous albums. However, Havalina really loved exploring genres and themes, so in that sense, Russian Lullabies fit right into their catalog. “Russian Lullabies might be best described as a musical expression of Russia, real or imagined. The music ranges from pop to light jazz, to even rock instrumentals. The opening track, “Tundra,” sets Russia up as metaphor for loneliness and isolation. Russia might be the largest country by land mass, but Russia has a lot of land that’s sparsly populated due to the extreme cold. Track 5,”Red and Blue (in St. Petersburg),” serves as the feel good song of the album – a jazzy homage to Russia’s artistic capital. the title track, “Russian Lullabies” provides a capstone for the album. The song gives the same metaphor for Russia as does “Tundra,” but while “Tundra” has a hopeful message, “Russian Lullabies” feels more dark and driven by despair.
Given enough time, and touring in vans, every band will probably put out their own “road trip” album. “America” is Havalina’s contribution to the trope. This does not mean that “America” is a cliche’. Havalina certainly puts their own spin on the road trip album, and “America” might just be my favorite Havalina album. Throughout the album, Havalina Rail Co. paints a picture of the big cities of the East Coast, the cornfields of the midwest, the bayou of the south, the deserts, the mountains – “America” sprawls through 24 tracks of what this huge country looks like…and sounds like.
Let’s talk about the sounds. “America” lacks the swing and jazz of the early albums. Havalina leans more towards country, bluegrass, and roots rock in “America.” Again – Havalina really never commits to one genre, and this is precisely what makes “America” a brilliant album. We get stories of old, black and white westerns, told with country music with the song “Dark Skies.” We get a fun, traveling down the river type of Bluegrass song with “Mississippi River.” There’s the horror inspired “Borris the Milkman,” which tells a story of an immigrant, just trying to make his way in a strange and scary land. There’s “Devil in the Cornfield” which meshes roots rock and gospel to tell the story of a tent meeting preacher.
“America.” What can I say? Havalina Rail Co. gives us their absolute best effort with their fourth album. We’re surprised at times, we might even be a little scared. But that’s life in this great big country. That’s life in America.
Space, Love, and Bullfighting (2003)
Havalina’s final release feels bittersweet. The album, “Space, Love, and Bullfighting” certainly serves as a decent send off. However, as we listen to the album, there’s so many clues showing that this will be the last Havalina album. Firstly – there’s a couple members gone. We no longer have the percussion of Jeff Suri, nor the vocals of Lori Suri. Instead, we hear a new female vocalist, Mercedes Stevens. There’s also a decidedly more electric sound to the album – more electric guitars and “manufactured” sounds. We have an honest, heartbreaking song called “Worst Days,” which gives us the feeling that the band, or at least the band leader Matt, might be lamenting the end of Havalina.
The final track of the album, “Space, Love, and Bullfighting suite,” is actually several mini songs stitched together in one Frankentrack. Each mini song showcases a different member of the band. We have a therein driven instrumental, we have a narrative about a monk named Fernando, we have a mixture of classical, rock and jazz – it’s almost like the band ends the album by giving a musical bow – each member with their own mini song.
Don’t get me wrong – “Space, Love, and Bullfighting is a fun album. “Rocket Ship” is a groovy, danceable love song. “Space and Mexico” gives us a rock song worthy of singing in the shower. Still – while the album’s themes are space exploration and Spanish music, the unwritten theme of this album is “Goodbye.”
Will Havalina Rail Co. ever reunite?
We can only hope! However, I doubt they ever will. Band leader Matt Wignall focuses on his photography more than anything (though he has tried to front other bands). Who knows what the other members are doing – but there’s not been much chatter in recent years about their efforts. Regardless – even if there’s never a Havalina reunion, the former band members should be proud. Havalina Rail Co. gave us five amazing albums, most of which remain in heavy rotation in my personal collection. That puts them on par with greats such as U2 and Elvis Costello.