Picking a Fight
Young Punks And Rockers Try To Find Their Place In An Old Folks' Bluegrass World
It can get embarrassing listening to all these punk-turned-roots bands that are popping up all over the country--Old Crow Medicine Show, the Hackensaw Boys, etc.--who bang on banjos instead of plucking them and list metal bands alongside Bill Monroe as influences on their MySpace pages. It's embarrassing the same way listening to a recovering alcoholic talk about religion is embarrassing. You want to tell them that just because they failed once--at playing real hard rock, or at life without tippling, as the case may be--doesn't mean that the new salvation they've found is any more honest or any better a creative outlet for their talents.
So it's easy to see why folk and bluegrass traditionalists have such a problem with these bands. North Carolina's the Avett Brothers, one such hardcore-turned-front-porch-picker band-consisting of two actual brothers, guitarist Seth and banjoist Scott, and a severe-looking, bearded upright bassist called Bob Crawford--have come up against some of that discrimination. 'Ridiculous heckling" is what Seth called it in an interview with Paste magazine. 'Incidents in elitist bluegrass-type settings where, after we play, people let us know their disgust, like-'Y'all are pathetic.'"
This is damn frustrating, for two reasons. First of all, anyone who has ever put themselves in a 'bluegrass-type setting" knows that they are anything but elitist. Even at the most hard-core of the hard-core traditionalist festivals, it's all about hot picking, sharp harmonies, and sincere delivery of traditional songs. There's no cool involved, really; everyone's paying homage to everyone else.
Secondly, when you listen to the Avetts, you realize that they're an excellent band--just not an excellent bluegrass band. So when they get booked at places like North Carolina's famous Merlefest-named for the late, flat-picking son of the reigning granddaddy of traditionalist roots music, Doc Watson--there's bound to be trouble. These guys are thrashers, not pickers, and screamers, not high-mountain harmonizers. They belong in clubs that have Pabst on tap, or at warehouse loft parties, somewhere they'll be properly appreciated.
The Avetts' 2006 album, Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions, is full of tunes that tread the line between super-indie freak folk and alt-country, played and sung with the abandon of earnest young skate punks. 'Talk on Indolence," for example, swings between a Marilyn Manson-style heavy-metal jig and something that sounds like drunken early Wilco, all with a persistent banjo throughout. The two tracks that have already widely leaked from the band's upcoming record Emotionalism (out in mid-May), 'Will You Return?" and 'Die Die Die," sound like the guitar-and-banjo version of Frankie Valli-style doo-wop and soft-spoken Decemberists-style balladry, respectively.
'Distraction #74," a playful march from Four Thieves Gone with a cascading banjo riff and Everly Brothers vocal parts, finds the Avetts singing the sort of full-mouthful, extended-idea lines that they're best at. 'Gimme a try at describing just how difficult it is," the brothers croon in sprightly harmony. 'When you kinda love two girls, to figure out which one you miss/ Stumble away from your stairway with your perfume on my clothes/ Well I kinda love two girls but I've kinda lost 'em both." The album is quite good, to be sure--just a case of mislabeling, mismarketing, and a misconstrued Southern identity. A lot of college rock, after all, comes from south of the Mason-Dixon.
Enter the Everybodyfields, the Avetts' labelmates on fledgling mom-and-pop operation Ramseur Records and also Merlefest regulars. The band, which has been playing together about two and a half years, is another multi-instrumentalist trio-Sam Quinn (vocals, bass, and guitar), Jill Andrews (vocals, bass, and guitar), and Megan McCormick (guitar, lap steel, and vocals). Their latest album, Plague of Dreams, is complemented by some excellent fiddling from Bearfoot Bluegrass' Angela Oudean.
Where the Avetts err on the side of too much rock and attempting to be too radio-friendly to be properly called bluegrass, the Everybodyfields get closer to the straight Kentucky sound but fall short by just a few too many shots of bourbon. More in tune with mopey alt-country bands like Dolorean or Freakwater, the Everybodyfields play pretty chamber-folk without ever letting their volume or emotional tenor rise above the low point of a manic-depressive cycle.
Tunes like 'T.V.A.," a standard hard-times ballad that recounts a Depression-era family's objections to the Tennessee Valley Authority, invoking FDR and Jesus Christ in equal parts, are drowsy, but at least drowsily beautiful. Other times, the incongruity of the Everybodyfields' songwriting is the most charming part--in the strangely phrased, nonrhyming lines of 'The Red Rose," Andrews sings, 'I think God is a moonshiner/ His skin is gold from the whiskey in his blood/ I think in heaven there is a barroom/ A place where the men go and forget about their wives." It's such an incomplete thought, and stranger still from the voice of a woman, but it succeeds completely in imparting the sense of wistfulness and despair that's the Everybodyfields' goal.
All In (9/9/2009)
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