Throughout its 20-year existence, Carbon Leaf has straddled the line between folk rock and Celtic rock. Some of the Richmond band’s more recent recordings have veered into a radio-friendly pop-rock territory, but its latest release, “Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle,” returns to the Celtic sound of its earliest albums.
That shift was intentional. “It was very much a definitive exercise in genre for us,” singer Barry Privett says. “On a lot of our past records, we would have a [Celtic] song or two. But we kind of went away from it, just because we weren’t inspired by it for a number of years.”
But old habits are hard to break. “We started coming back around to some of those ideas and sounds,” Privett says, “and we were like, ‘Well, let’s make one that’s just unabashedly Celtic in spirit, and we’ll go from that angle and we won’t deviate.’ ”
The quintet certainly hit the mark. The new album is bursting with energy from top to bottom. From the tongue-twisting “The Donnybrook Affair” to the surprisingly jubilant “She’s Gone (. . . for good this time),” many of the tracks sound like raucous pub singalongs. (As if a nod to that spirit, the album opens with “Bloody Good Bar Fight Song.”)
Carbon Leaf may channel an Irish attitude here, but Privett doesn’t restrict himself to literal Celtic-inspired lyrics. One of the album’s most memorable tracks is “The Fox and the Hare,” which begins, “And I would fight Nazis to keep you with me.” Privett goes on to list other potential foes, from zombies to wild animals, all with a swayingrhythm that sounds like it came from an old Irish songbook.
Nazis and zombies aren’t typical folk fodder, but Privett draws out the Irish themes in the song. “That you’re fighting or defending your turf is where that all came from,” he says. “It’s kind of a ‘stay away from my gal’ kind of song.”
Solidifying Carbon Leaf’s dive into Celtic territory are three instrumentals that highlight the rest of the band — guitarist Terry Clark, bassist Jon Markel, percussionist Jason Neal and multi-instrumentalist Carter Gravatt. But Privett doesn’t sit idly by on the instrumentals.
“With this being the Celtic record, there were some gaps to fill in terms of the traditional instrumentation,” says Privett, who brushed up on the penny whistle and bagpipe to add melodies to the instrumental songs. “It’s a nice exercise for us to dip our toe into that world where we write songs that sound more traditional and not rock.”
Part of what allows Carbon Leaf such freedom is that in 2010, the band returned to releasing albums on its own label, Constant Ivy Music, after a three-album stint on Vanguard Records.
Time on the label was helpful for increased radio exposure, but Privett says he welcomed the return to being an independent band. “When you’re on a label, it’s really all about timing for them,” he says. “They’ve got a lot of artists in their portfolio, so you’re just like a rotated crop. We weren’t able to write and release as much as we wanted to, because [we] had to wait [our] turn for all these other things in the queue that they had going on. We just wanted to not waste the time and start writing and releasing at a quicker clip.”
After leaving the label, Carbon Leaf also set up its own recording studio, where it’s already recording a follow-up to “Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle.” The new album, which is fan-funded through a PledgeMusic campaign, is due in September with a 40-city tour in the fall.
But don’t expect more Celtic tunes: “This is going to be more of a folk-based or rootsy kind of thing,” Privett says. “Still a rock record, but still very acoustic.”
He laughs at his own vagueness. “I dunno; we’re still working on it!”
Privett and his bandmates are undaunted by such a fast-paced recording and release schedule.
“We’ve been together for 20 years, and I would say for the first 13 or 14 of those years, we lay relatively fallow,” he says. “So now we want to be aggressive in getting music recorded and released.
“We have like 600 unfinished demos in our library, and some of it is really good. If your fans are waiting for music, then why not deliver it?”
Lewis is a freelance writer.
Appearing Friday at the Hamilton, 600 14th St. NW. Show starts at 8:30 p.m.
202-787-1000. www.thehamiltondc.com. $33 in advance,
$35 at the door.
For a sampling of Carbon Leaf’s music, check out:
From “Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle”: “The Donnybrook Affair” “The Fox and the Hare”
From “Nothing Rhymes With Woman”: “Another Man’s Woman”
From “Echo Echo”: “The Boxer”