It’s a Hoot: Folk, Alt. Folk/Country, & Folk-Rock News & Reviews
Jack Wilson: Jack Wilson (Fluff and Gravy)
Starlings, TN: Heartbreak in 4/4 Time (Chicken Ranch)
Demolition String Band: Gracious Days (Varese Sarabande)
The Pines: Dark So Gold (Red House)
Wrinkle Neck Mules: Apprentice to Ghosts (Lower 40)
There’s magnetism in Jack Wilson’s plaintive tenor. As with Rick Danko or Neil Young (two of Wilson’s influences,) you’ll want to hear what the Austin-via-Seattle songwriter has to sing. His music is consistently interesting. And another dimension’s added by the innovative instrumentation and effects on this debut, some of which Wilson attributes to production by Alex Kostelnik, who “helped translate what was in my head.” The lead and slide guitar tones are sweet as fresh-sliced watermelon. I’m drawn by the sound of boots on a gravel path that lead into the first track, “Valhalla.” After roaring (often with his band, the Wife Stealers,) through “The Cure,” “Black Hills Fiction,” and a rocking duo (“Paying for Misery”/“The Watchers” – look out, Crazy Horse!) Wilson pulls us back in with naked emotion (“Dogwood Days,” “Red Feather,” “I’ll Do the Same”). Wilson has that certain something – call it the ability to channel moods and stories – that makes for a bona fide, meant-to-be minstrel.
For the first five tracks of Heartbreak in 4/4 Time, the shift between slow depression-menders (or -bringers; depending) and knee-slappers etches an apparently easy pigeonhole: First class, from-the-heart, Alt. Country/Folk. But the Austin-based Starlings, TN do some shapeshifting. “Girl from Tchoupitoulas St.,” the sixth track (and last on what’s called the “boy side” of the album), explores an expressionistic landscape that might fit a Robert Wyatt release. “Daylight Savings” demands placement in a Twin Peaks sequel – one imagines Julee Cruise daintily dipping her biscuits in the gently disquieting placidity of its swirling electric guitar notes. And “(Tonight) I’m Just Lookin’ to Get laid” has the resigned mournfulness of Leonard Cohen, with some lead lines that sound like a hand going across barbed wire. In its way, it rocks, as does “Dry County in Hell.”
Starlings seem to share a deep fondness for alcohol. Per their Facebook profile: “A stranger is simply someone you haven’t shared a drink with yet,” and “God preserve us and protect us. We’ve been drinking before breakfast.” But some of these tracks would get the raspberry at any two-steppin’ establishment: They’d be too weird, and/or real, for anyone craving the Country Lite that passes for white-bread soul in the contemporary market.
This is the real thang. Leader Steve Stubblefield’s experience, as the child of a Louisiana Baptist preacher, is just one of Starlings’ richly pulsing veins. Oh, and his house, along with his old-timey instruments, and new-timey equipment, was crushed by a Hurricane Katrina-driven tree in 2005. A few years later, the guy had a nervous breakdown. Damn, if that all don’t add up to “Country.” And bassist Mitchell Vandenburg fell into Starlings while he was still washing the soil of Iraq and Korea (where he’d been as an Army musician) off his slicked-back ‘do.
Not that all those details have to add up to a band, or album, worth a damn. In this case, they do. A couple of Heartbreak in 4/4 Time tracks suffer from hook-poor, monotonous melancholia. But on the whole, the album shines with deep soul; testifying to the reality that white people used to sing moving gospel (maybe in some small, Canadian outpost, they still do). It’s even better when a preacher’s son infuses his post-religious days with a sex-beneath-the-gingham-tablecloth passion (whether it was imagined, or really happened) that cannot be bought, pretended, or imitated. I can’t say whether Stubblefield, or any other Starling, is or isn’t currently “religious,” although the line “liquor is so heavenly” (On “Dry County in Hell”) unveils at least one belief system.
There’s an air of wildness; of something cool and sharp in the air, with Demolition String Band.
The duo bristles with a restlessness that’s at the heart of some of the most exciting American roots music. It’s that sense of suddenly leaving town for no apparent reason, or on the strength of a rumor. It’s about dropping your husband’s hand at a county fair ‘cause some handsome stranger – who’s probably “trouble” — strides by; taking your breath away.
With a flexible foundation in Bluegrass and old-timey Folk, Elena Skye and Boo Reiners seem to have been born for sepia-toned melodies. “Jethro’s Lullaby,” the mandolin-drenched calling card that bookends Gracious Days, throws off a sweetly arcane scent. For me, Gracious Days could have kept to that path. But DMS is anxious to kick its lace-up boots in a variety of settings, whether the vintage Country of “Misfortune” or the Rock-laced Country of “Questioningly” (the Ramones song). “Boojo Breakaway” and “Williamsville Ramble,” offer bracing blasts of racing strings. And “Under the Weather” is a shimmering, danceable Folk-rocker. Damn, that last one’s a winner, recalling some of Dan Hicks’ joyful chutzpah. It’s a jugband tune with all the right post-’60s bells and whistles. Skye and Reiners are aided and abetted by a posse that includes Mike Santoro/acoustic and electric bass, Catherine Popper/bass fiddle and electric bass guitar, Lisa Gutkin/fiddle, and and Neal Pawley/trombone and tuba.
Based in Minnesota, , the Pines know the power of space, and of silence. Dark So Gold envelops with the bittersweet, intermittent transcendence of a day lost in wilderness. There’s a hypnotic pull to songs about the rising of a moon in Iowa, a crow, stars, and dead feathers. Even harmonized vocals are slight, as if to admit the minute presence of men and women against the majesty of unsullied nature. Three tracks that get close to the stunning beauty of such a landscape are “Moonrise, Iowa,” “Losing the Stars,” and “Grace Hill.” The uninterrupted experience of Dark So Gold would go well with Dylan circa Blood on the Tracks and Planet Waves. That’s only partly explained by the resemblance between co-leader/singer/songwriter (with Benson Ramsey) David Huckfelt’s lead vocals and those of a young Dylan. Benson’s dad, master guitarist/Folkie Bo Ramsey, co-produced. Which probably explains some of the magic dust with which this album’s speckled. Everything I’ve heard that’s involved Ramsey, Sr. has had some of that.
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If all or any of the above sounds artsier than you like your Folk and/or Country, there’s plenty of gravy-drippin’, sh**-kickin’ angst to be had on Wrinkle Neck Mules’ new album. Dark So Gold would be well-advised to avoid running into Apprentice to Ghosts in a dark alley, although, truth to tell, the Pines might be more likely to spook the (relative) buncha roughnecks called the W.R. Mules than vice-versa. The Mules are a beer and whiskey-slammin’ bunch; prone to drawling lyrics about waiting to be let back into bed over distorted guitars (“Patience on the Couch”), or between chunky, these-boots-are-so-heavy beats (“Leaving Chattanooga”). In its way, “Parting of the Clouds” sounds as much like a barstool story about an unforgettable encounter as any that were churned out by the Band.
You can enter the Mules’ cyber world (the earthly one’s based in Richmond, Virginia) via the web link below. You’ll probably have company: a lot of folks have been hunting down the Mules song that Geico’s been using in one of its ads, “Central Daylight Time.” It’s easy to find, though, on Apprentice to Ghosts. See the video, below:
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