For a songwriter accustomed to working with big ideas and long-form song cycles, Tim Rakel, of ragged Americana purveyor the Union Electric, has been keeping his band's output short and sweet. With Rakel's previous band Bad Folk and the still-active May Day Orchestra, he's favored long-players that operate as a whole. For Union Electric, a series of seven-inch records has been the group's output for the past three years, leaving some fans to wonder if UE had LP-length ambitions or preferred to work in ten-minute dispatches. This eleven-song album mostly answers that question: Four of these tracks hail from those earlier singles and another snuck out on a local comp, but the rest are new to listeners. So Time Is Gold is neither a discreet cycle of songs nor a compendium of previous releases, but the album gives a fine picture of a band with some solid work behind it and a lot of life still to come. (Completists will need to track down those 45s to get the full discography.)
Rakel works best with a twang-friendly train-beat behind him, and the steady rhythm of Melinda Cooper's bass and Mic Boshans' drums propel these songs and give Rakel's gruff timbre a kinetic push (other drummers contributed to these tracks as well). Guitarist Glenn Burleigh is Rakel's melodic foil in the band. His one-string guitar lines may be simple and linear, but the high-wattage buzz of his tone provides a spark. Opening track "Truman" finds Union Electric at its best — it's a spitfire history lesson of our country's military-industrial complex that takes the Louvin Brothers' "The Great Atomic Power" as its seed. The next track, "Saint Francis of Illinois," shows the band in fine ballad form with lyrics in tribute to "prairie troubadour" Vachel Lindsay and subtle, moving fiddle line compliments of guest musician Kevin Buckley.
Like "Truman," plenty of songs here are concerned with left-leaning politics and the dark corners of American history, but Rakel's poetic pen and passionate but detached point of view keeps the songs from ever approaching the soapbox. The band recently paid tribute to Woody Guthrie at the KDHX (88.1 FM) 100th birthday party for the American legend, but Union Electric's type of political song is less flag-waving or slogan-bearing. Rakel and Co. still want to fight the power, but there's a realistic resignation at the ways of the world that tempers the righteousness and rage.