It’s clear from the outset that this album is going to be something special, the cover artwork alone tells you that there has been a lot of thought and work gone into the making of this album. It’s always a good idea to make your cover stand out because fans of this style of music will be dipping into this cd regularly and, lets face it, no one likes a boring album cover.
It’s easy to look at modern life and suggest we’re paying more for less, prices are rising while the service or goods we receive are the same. With Foghorn Stringband, that simply isn’t the case!
With an album listing 19 songs, you would very rightly think you’re getting a lot of ‘bang for your buck’ but with a bunch of unlisted songs added on to the end of the cd, you’re being properly treated.
The Krickets make music at a point where the Old World mets the New, where European folk meets country music, where Americana meets ethereality, where heaven bound harmonies join with traditional sounds and where delicacy meets drive. They work with familiar forms for sure but as always it “ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” And boy, the way that they do it is mesmerising. They call their deft musical blend “swamp-folk” and whilst it does sometimes run along the sultry and primal lines that such a name infers, it feels slightly self-self-deprecating for such rich and glorious music. Their previous release, Spanish Moss Sirens may have been closer to such a label but RedBird is built of more delicate and intricate stuff and the result is a rather elegant Americana sound.
I always prefer my roots music ragged, and so anything described as “frenetic bluegrass, ” or “apocalyptic Americana” is always going to be something that I’m going to be drawn to. Roots music is the music of the people, the working classes, those who have to make their own entertainment and whether you are playing gypsy jazz music in Eastern Europe, keeping the traditions of rural China alive or in the case of these splendid fellows, punking up Appalachian folk music, the ethic is the same. This is about keeping something alive and delivering it in the manner it was intended, raw, unpolished and full of authentic spirit.
And unlike many modern bands who seem to merely be adopting the sounds of the past for commercial gain, Some Part of Something is a real celebration of times past, a remembrance but more than anything it’s a party. And it is for that reason that their live shows are famous for their raucous and riotous flavours. It’s always hard to capture that live energy in studio form but this album is the perfect calling card for that, you just need to imagine the band barefooted, often bare-chested, sweat-soaked and beer drenched leading the audience through the songs as if this was the last party before the apocalypse.
What you do get from the album is the quality of the playing and the deftness of the songwriting, five albums in and they are certainly hitting a stride that most of their peers would find it hard to keep up with. No Pity in the Rose City is a clattering, cow-punk onslaught and Reckless is a dystopian hoe-down but it isn’t all one long blind, headlong musical charge for the bar and songs such as Southern Sisyphus’s slower pace reveals the brilliance of the playing that actually fuels their music and Long Gone tips its battered hat to the more traditional country forms coming on like the sound track to a gothic western TV series that never was.
Whiskey Shivers are the perfect storm of bluegrass themes and punk rock energy, social commentary and humorous asides, ragged party music and exquisite playing. If anyone tells you that they don’t like country music and its ilk, then just play them this album. If they aren’t an instant convert then cut them out of your life, no one needs that sort of narrow mindedness and negativity around them.
The wonderfully named Two Man Travelling Medicine Show wander some long forgotten music byways. You find them exploring dusty paths that result in some archaic and awesome blends of punked up bluegrass, sideways Americana and European gypsy folk to create a new form of world music. It is the sound of a culture which never existed but if it had would have been found at the point where the Mason-Dixon Line runs along the M4 Corridor. Just about where Memphis and Membury Services touch.
This time out they seem to also take in a strange alt-ragtime musical hall jazz to compliment their already eclectic weaves of raw and raucous rootsy rhythms, frantic folk frolics and blustery and buoyant blues. Hey, I’d forgotten just how much fun alliteration was. A Snake’s a Snake is a rant about honesty and ethics and like all great songs has a chorus that you will have down pat by the time it comes around for the second go. Throw into that some groovesome beats, layers of strange musical detail and detailed musical strangeness…banjo, accordion, fiddle and any number of wheezing and wonky sound textures adding musical hues and sonic cries, and you have the perfect party tune of the decade. Not this decade obviously, probably more like the 1890’s before Simon Cowell, electronic instruments and Hoagy Carmichael came along and ruined everything.
With harmonies reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkle and imagery reflective of a whiskey-fuelled fairy-tale, Alpha Mules’ ‘Peripheral Vision’ boasts an array of original and Tuscon-tuned tracks. Taking inspiration from the music of the American south and American southwest, Alpha Mule blend several genres together in this album – bluegrass, country, rock and folk to name but a few.
Opening the album with the remote calls of a train, Corpus Christi is a song which lends itself to the solitude, seclusion and heat of the Sonoran Desert. Cutting into the foreground with sharp subtlety, the banjo’s allegretto tempo effortlessly compliments Joe Forkan’s dulcet vocals. By having a highly open melodic sequence, the instrumentation is allowed, if you will, to ‘‘run free’’ in this track: the closing phrases of Corpus Christi, wherein the slide guitar is partnered with Eric Stoner’s banjo, personify a feeling of space, distance, and loneliness, while the cyclical nature of the song ultimately helps to create a hypnotic and compelling sound. Although still reinforcing the expansive style of the album, On The Moon juxtaposes Corpus Christi’s marriage of melody and harmony by conveying a clear contradiction between the lead vocals and Stoner’s banjo and guitar accompaniment. While some may argue that the soft, legato vocals are submerged by the strong, staccato string section, I feel that the punchy percussion does nothing but add to the energetic and upbeat nature of the track.
Mirroring the title of the album, Peripheral Vision epitomises all that is tender, soft, and loving in life. By repeating lines, such as ‘The girl in my blind spot’, composers Joe Forkan and Eric Stoner are not only able to reinforce themes of mystery, uncertainty, and longing, but also convey an overriding presence of ambiguity (which seems to trickle into each track on the album). With the howling call of the harmonica, a sense of regret seeps into this song – like a pillowcase being stained by tears. However, with the phrase ‘Her image breaks through’ comes the instigation of a new emotion: optimism. The closing bars of Peripheral Vision also reflect the hope and anticipation that can clearly be heard in the Forkan’s lyrical phrasing. Brimming with exoticisms, The Distance is a song which can only be described as ‘‘the perfect story.’’ Flawlessly underpinning the overall tone of the song, the interlude witnesses the banjo and guitar playing as if one instrument, while Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet summons the listener to a distant land. Simply put, this song provides the heat of far-off places and is full of faded promises.
A technique used in both The Distance and Mule in the Mine, Forkan and Stoner’s incorporation of word painting highlights the sophistication and beauty of the album itself. Used extensively throughout Mule in the Mine, the embedded word painting in Forkan’s melody mirrors the vigour of the accompaniment and the percussions driving rhythm. Constantly flitting from fortissimo to pianissimo, Mule in the Mine is a song which packs a musical punch.
If you want to not only picture the vastness that originates with loneliness, but also experience that heat that comes from adventure, then listen to this album.
Anyone with half a good ear would place Flood County fair and square in the country oeuvre, but genres are tricky things to get to grips with. Either they are so vague as to be next to useless, or, and yes metallers I am looking at you, they are so precise and convoluted as to only neatly relate to one or two bands. Country music definitely falls into the former category. So this is country, but it is what gets threaded through We’ll Be Fine that we need to talk about, the deft musicality which personalise it, the clever sonic choices which make it stand apart from the rest of the rhinestoned, pick-up truckin’ line dancing lesser mortals.
For whilst it is an album which has a country core and even elements that will find favour with the Music City purists, this is an album, and indeed a band, who don’t follow the rules, at least not to the letter, and therefore don’t fall for the cliches. By and large theirs is a soothing and soulful take on the genre, restrained and delicate and the gently sweeping violins and lilting banjo’s touch on pastoral bluegrass and bucolic folk as much as they do the traditional country music building blocks.
Songs like Most of The Time, The Road and the title track itself provide confident country grooves but they are balanced by the restraint of The Old Famous Smile and the delicate waltz of World Come Undone. It swings when it choses, it struts when it feels like it but most of all it is a deft and well crafted collection of songs, songs which would rather underplay their musical hand in favour of a softening soulfulness and a wonderful delicacy. Less is indeed more. Much more!
Whilst it is pretty much impossible to find music which totally encapsulates America as an idea and an entity, by virtue of its size and diversity, cultural blends and creative explorations, there is some music which when heard makes you think of no other place. The bleak and emotive howls of early blues, wild eyed jazz ensembles, the heartland rock of the likes of Petty and Springsteen and the evocative roots music which is at the heart of Alpha Mule. This Californian duo take threads of country, bluegrass and blues, and even some genres which didn’t appear in CBGB’s infamous sign, such as folk and rock and perhaps creates an American music for the modern age. It does feels built from the very bedrock of the American dream so why not?
Banjos propel the song through drifting guitar landscapes and eerie sonic backdrops, and wraps it around a wonderfully dark edged vocal, the result being the product not so much the soundtrack of an America that was, more to an America as modern film-makers like to envisaged it and bordering on an alternative dystopian western scenario which would feel more at home coming from the pen of the likes of Steven King. But if you are looking for music which evokes a past but is very much about the here and now, then Alpha Mule are your go to guys.
Last time I dipped my toe into the crazy waters of The Two Man Travelling Medicine Show it was to experience their clattering cider-punk-country-hoedown Tightropin’ a song which gave me the opportunity to roll out all those literary juxtapositions and two worlds colliding musical metaphors. But a full album is a whole different affair. Here, rather than just the quick snapshot that a single offers, you get a fuller sense of the musical landscape this intriguing band calls home.
Opening salvo, Winter Walks, offers a wholly unexpected and slightly disarming start, a more plaintive, pastoral introduction to the band than the one I was subjected to, but never the less threaded through with wonderful dynamic changes, mournful stings and Beatle-esque descending progressions. This is quickly followed by the frantic cow-punk of Tick Tick and thus the boundaries of their sonic kingdom are quickly defined.
And whilst there is a lot about this album which reminds you that the folk urges of this side of the Atlantic and the country twangs of our colonial counterparts are certainly generic cousins, there is a lot more at work here too. Whilst Lose Your Step is classic wistful reflection with a UK postcode and Country Singer has all the references that its name implies, the most interesting tracks are the ones that throw you a few curveballs. Serial Killer is a strange punk musical hall gang show, Magazines is a classic pub rock era strut that Nick Lowe would be proud of and the track from which the band takes their name is a splendidly drunken waltz. And even after pinballing between all of those musical demarcation lines they still manage to surprise me with Circling The Airport, a cinematic, soundtrack of a song that, however hard I try not to, has be thinking of The Goo Goo Dolls Iris, for all the right, sky-scraping and emotive reasons.
Going into an album on the strength of one song is always interesting, sometimes you realise that a band are a one trick pony and the single is all you needed to hear anyway, other times you find that it isn’t representative at all. After hearing Tightropin’ a few months ago, Weeding Out The Wicked turns out to be the best of both worlds. That song is representative of only one part of the bands sound and through the course of the album they take wonderful sonic journeys through associated genres and conduct interesting cross pollinating experiments but all the while the sound is cohesive, fresh and original. It isn’t often that you find that happening, I can tell you.
Frantic, that’s the word that springs to mind. Ramshackle, that’s another. Frantic and ramshackle but wonderfully so. Two Man Travelling Medicine Show are a perfect storm of roots music, bluegrass stomps played with a punk swagger, pastoral folk taken on a white-knuckle ride on an out of control cider cart. Country-core? Cow-punk? Who knows?
It’s the same clash of Old World urges and New World sounds that saw me fall for fellow southern country-punks The Cropdusters all those years ago. It makes me think that somewhere amongst the hill forts and chalk downs of this ancient part of the world there is a ley-line, a spiritual hillbilly highway that runs along the south coast under the ocean and on through the Appalachian Mountains and thus explaining the musical connection.
Fiddles flash, guitars get abused, basses grumble and an incessant beat pushes the song ever closer to the edge. It’s the soundtrack to Stonewall Jackson leading a charge on Maiden Castle…now there’s an image.
Musical genres are made up of gradients running from one extreme to the other with bands being positioned along it based on factors not always as pure as just playing songs. The line begins in its heartland traditions, music made for the purists, those who believe that the rules are already written and must be adhered to. At the far end of that same line you find acts working to take the genres musical traits to a more commercial audience. There is an argument for both approaches.
The Sawtooth Brothers probably exist 2 thirds of the way along the line. Having travelled sonically from the purer sound of Bluegrass and music largely associated with the South east of the USA to a more commercial sound. It’s a great balancing act, for whilst there are enough roots securing them to enough tradition as to appeal to the hardcore fans, their ability to blend it with more mainstream country, folk and even pop aware melodicism will serve them, and indeed the genre, well.
They match old school dexterity with a deftness that will appeal to the masses, tug at enough nostalgic generic threads but comes up with marketable modern designs, in short they offer their chosen music a bright future, one that sees them sporting shades and looking forward rather than donning rose-tinted glasses and reaching for their Bill Munroe records.
Banjos get a hard time generally, especially over on this side of the water where they aren’t a part of the collective musical heritage as it is Stateside. But right from the opening salvo of The River Will, you quickly realise that its sultry and sparing use, coupled with the twin vocals of Kendl Winter and Palmer T Lee are being used to create something truly magical. As the dominant instrument, it gently guides rather that drives the music, entwining with guitars or violins in just the same sensuous way that the voices above it do.
And whilst a concise approach, can often lead to sparseness in the music or bleak atmospherics, in the hands of these seasoned players the result is rather one of a shimmering sweetness, of warmth, of light. The fact that there is not be a superfluous note or unnecessary syllable means that these simple musical shapes and songlines are close to perfect. It conjures dust motes dancing on sunlight streaming through the window, of endless summers and lakeside parties, of nighttime fires and a world seen through a sepia instagram filter.
In the same way that The Band turned their back on the musical fashion of their day to explore the musical heritage of America’s past, so The Lowest Pair seem inspired to follow a similar journey. But far from just a plundering of times long gone, this is also a reinvention, a re-appreciation, a modern celebration of traditions and the perfect way of taking the past by the hand and leading it into the future.