Ross & Eli
Signs & Seasons
Independent (released July 15, 2022)
By Robert M. Marovich
Signs & Seasons is the prodigious product of musicians Ross Martinie Eiler and Eli Schille-Hudson and a band of equally gifted singers and musicians from Bloomington, Indiana. A group with a Catholic connection, they create multidenominational music seasoned with folk, soul, soft rock, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, and R&B.
I had the fortune of reviewing the 49-minute album as a two-disc vinyl set, which—as quality vinyl does—bestows a special warmth to the proceedings.
The collection opens and closes with delicate and liturgical flourishes from guitar and handbells as it flows thematically from Advent to Christmas to Lent to Easter and back to Advent. Lyrics brim with biblical references, especially from Psalms, but it’s stylistically diverse, with creative approaches to each selection.
For example, “Patapan” is the most musically dynamic version of the eighteenth-century Burgundian carol I’ve ever heard and, I suspect, you’ve ever heard, too. Unlike the fragile original, this arrangement is up-tempo and explosive. For musical invention, props also go to “After Ps 90” and the round song “Time Was Told.” They share the playfulness of children’s folk songs. “Tenebrae,” an violin lament inspired by Holy Saturday, and the classical guitar solo “All Hallows,” are delicate and thoughtful.
Other album tracks that share DNA with African American gospel music are “Just After Midnight,” a musing on the Nativity that has an Edwin Hawkins Singers sensibility with warbling organ and tight rhythm section. “Set Me a Table” mirrors ‘70s soul gospel but features an electric guitar solo straight outta surf music. Based on Psalm 118, “From the House” is the album’s finest track, a beseeching for blessings from a fiery gospel quartet backed by rock ‘n’ roll triplets.
A strong contender for top track is “Let Us Dream,” sung by the supremely talented Amanda Biggs, who belts out the lyrics like a Broadway lead. Shai Warfield-Cross’s vocals on “Dust” need to be singled out for sheer loveliness. Special kudos go to organist Matt Romy for his agile gospel licks, but all the musicians and singers bring their best to the project.
I wish there was something like Ross & Eli’s troupe back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was writing my wee sacred songs out of, but at the same time deliberately distinctive from, the omnipresent St. Louis Jesuits-Marty Haugen-David Haas-Michael Joncas tradition, as this group’s catalogue definitely is. Though the songs center on holidays, it’s music for all year round. Impressive, to say the least. I only wish the group’s individual or collective photos were part of the collection.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “From the House,” “Let Us Dream”