The Pinkerton Raid—project of Durham, N.C., singer, songwriter & guitarist Jesse James DeConto—is gearing up to release new album The Highway Moves The World on Dec. 2. In advance, DeConto is offering a preview of the title track, which is the sonic and thematic linchpin for this new set of songs.
Anchored by a distorted Fender Rhodes piano (made to sound like a Wurlitzer); reverberating fingerpicked electric guitar; languid, shuffling drums, and some resplendent trumpet from Holy Ghost Tent Revival's Charlie Humphrey, "The Highway Moves the World" sits at the nexus of indie-folk and Americana, at once encompassing the band's two distinct sonic personalities.
The song tells the story of how DeConto's big, tight-knit family—with all its love and conflict—followed him south, relocating en masse from New Hampshire to North Carolina, all the while sprinting up and down the East Coast, from Florida to New England, tending to business and visiting scattered family & friends, connected to each other by the endless miles of blacktop highway. The song is about the struggle to stick together as a family against the odds of the modern world and the economic pressures of late-stage capitalism. “You take the long way, ‘round about, geography’s a magic art / The highway brings us home to us, the highway moves the world,” DeConto sings on the track, honoring his wandering-matriarch mother.
“Every one of the songs on the new album is in some way inspired by a relationship with a member of my family,” DeConto explains. “My parents raised us five siblings in New Hampshire, and then I grew up, went to college, got married, had my first kid, spent three or four years back in New Hampshire after school, and moved down to North Carolina, expecting my second kid at the time. Essentially, ‘Highway Moves the World’ is the story of how we all ended up together again—how my mom followed me and my kids, and how my four siblings all eventually came along, too. It’s a story that serves as a window into all these important family relationships in my life, which is something I get pretty deep into on the new record.”
Possibility permeates The Highway Moves the World, which was produced by David Wimbish of fellow North Carolina band The Collection and features 12 songs, each inspired by a different complicated human being, all of whom just so happen to be DeConto’s closest family members—as well as a couple longtime friends with the power to deliver either great joy & wonder or profound betrayal & disappointment. In other words, these characters are familiar stand-ins for the people loved by any of us.
DeConto recorded most of The Highway Moves the World on the brink of the pandemic (as January turned to February 2020) with bassist Jonathan DePue, drummer Scott McFarlane and guitarist Garrett Langebartels. Despite their album-release plans being delayed by covid lockdown, in 2020 they put out new single “Dream the Sun,” a paean to the pain of waiting. The song was also a tribute to Jesse’s sister Katie, her tireless work of arts advocacy, and the tattoo on her right shoulder, reminding her that through it all there is a sun—a source of warmth and light—even when all you feel and see is cold and dark.
The Highway Moves the World has its roots two decades ago in the DeContos’ leaky basement rehearsal space, where Jesse learned Beatles songs and started to examine his tribe’s own particular brand of woundedness as the 19-year-old eldest brother of five. “Basement Tapes”—a highlight of the new album— is a sparse, melodic remembrance of this time and the musical family’s origins.
The new album’s songs travel through forest legends and foreign lands, blackjack games and French bistros, photo albums and feminist awakenings, all serving as the scene-sets and props for human drama of the most genuine kind. By the end of the journey, the listener comes full circle to “Merseybeat,” with its garden parties, echoes of “Eleanor Rigby” and another Liverpool legend—Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers—showing up in the lyrics with a simple message: “Don’t walk alone.” Shindig! magazine called the song “a long-faded sound from a distant time and place … shimmering as if born anew.” Given Jesse’s origins playing The Beatles in that leaky basement, it’s a pretty good summary of the song, the new record and a career now five albums deep.