Adam’s Mini-Reviews, Vol. 3- Buckeye Edition
NOTE: I wrote the rough draft of this on Thursday night with high hopes of editing it and publishing it later that evening. Sleep and having an appointment at eight in the morning intervened, but I decided to keep the real-time references in the subsequent drafts just to mix things up a little and because I thought the structure was kinda cool.
The third quarter is barely underway and already it’s 42-7 in Ohio State’s favor. I love to see the Buckeyes do well, but I find it difficult to sit through a blowout. Were they playing anybody but Marshall, who has an entirely new coaching staff this season, it would probably be a closer game. They would most likely still be ahead, but the running game has left a lot to be desired so far. But as I was saying, it’s 3rd and 16 for the Herd right now, the game isn’t worth watching and the mute button is on.
Luckily we have more than football to be happy about in Ohio these days. Three new releases lead me to believe that the Buckeye State could very well be the next hotbed for Americana.
I’ll start with The Rubber Knife Gang, a semi-bluegrass trio out of Cincinnati, who I feel are destined for stardom in the roots music arena. Their second album Drivin’ On will be released on September 10th, and in fact I was invited to the album’s release party in Chillicothe tomorrow evening, an event I unfortunately cannot make it to.
Throughout the record the band mixes bluegrass and folk instrumentation with rock attitude, going as far as to cover Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer,” but the originals are the most interesting thing here and having grown up in southern Ohio myself, I can attest to the authenticity of these songs and their lyrics. In particular, “Oil Well,” which is thematically similar to the Drive-By Truckers’ “Zip City” and Springsteen’s “The Promised Land,” sums up the overwhelming malaise often found in rural Ohio better than any other song I’ve ever heard, while the harmony-laden tale “Whoa” is a genuine slice out of my life.
Other highlights include the bluegrass-meets-country rock title track, the great folk murder ballad “She’s the Only One,” and songs like “Ain’t No Cure” and “Chasing Your Tail” which retain the bluegrass instrumentation but owe more in structure to classic rockabilly. But the two best tracks for me have to be the country-boy fantasy “Tennessee Mountain Girl” and the irreverent folk-tinged hidden bonus track “Praise the Lord, Pass the Weed.”
Assuming that the fans are not afraid of experimentation, the Rubber Knife Gang could very well be the future of bluegrass. Of course, that is a lot to ask of bluegrass fans who tend to cling too heavily to tradition. But even if they don’t become bluegrass stars, they will remain one of the best underground bands in the Americana scene and this will remain one of the best albums of the year.
A quick glance at the TV. Same score. Under 10 minutes to go in the fourth.
Next up we’ll go to the opposite end of the state and take a look at folk guitarist and vocalist Joe Rollin Porter from Cleveland.
Porter’s forte is keeping folk music alive and he does so brilliantly by delivering a 10-track-collection mostly culled from the American folk tradition with songs ranging from the well-known to the obsure, including several Child ballads, songs from Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music, and even one old blues number.
The arrangements here are as sparse as possible: just Porter’s guitar and voice with an occasional hand clap or foot stomp. By keeping things this simple, he allows his considerable strength as a musician to shine through and also makes the entire proceeding much more authentic than a full-band production would allow.
Porter begins with the well-known “Black Jack Davy” before proceeding to his rewritten version of Little Hat Jones’ 1930 blues tune “Bye Bye Baby Blues.” Other highlights of the record include “The Cuckoo Bird,” an excellent version of “Greensleeves,” the bleak title track, and possibly one of the best versions I’ve heard of “Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe.”
Porter finishes the album with a nice arrangement of “Oh Death” that is clearly based on Dock Boggs’ rendition.
Porter displays a very pleasant and deep singing voice that is quite emotional throughout the record, but the main strength of the album lies in his skill and obvious experience at finger-styled guitar. The dexterity and speed displayed here are attained only through years of hard work and it is obvious that Porter has more than paid his dues.
Guys like Joe are the type of performer that we all need to pay close attention to. They are the ones keeping the musical past alive, shining a new light on the old songs, and while it’s true nobody will ever equal Dock Boggs, Woody Guthrie, or Son House, that is no justification for abandoning the styles they perfected.
Back in Columbus, there’s 1:14 left in the game. Looks like the Buckeyes have scored another field goal.
Also back in Columbus a band called The Main Street Gospel have created an interesting blend of ’60s psychedelia, modern indie rock, and country twang on their latest album Love Will Have Her Revenge. The opening, harmony-heavy title track sounds like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young covering “Time of the Season,” which gives you a pretty good idea of how the entire album will go. It sounds like a love of ’60s rock filtered through today’s indie aesthetic.
Stylistically the album ranges from lengthy stoner jams such as “Fool’s Gold” and “She’s a Disease” to country-rockers like “Getting Through” and “Losing Sleep” to the gorgeous Neil Young-inspired acoustic ballad “Truly (Hymn)” and my personal favorite “Give Your Love Away” to straightforward rock like the stunning closer “Sweet Summer Rain” (again, Neil Young-inspired, but this time think “Cowgirl in the Sand”) .Yet all of these styles mesh perfectly on the album. Strong lyricism and great musicianship prevail throughout, but what I was most impressed by was the atmosphere created by the band, which is very hard to pin down: very bleak, yet never depressing.
The Main Street Gospel have crafted a strong album that rock fans who like their nostalgia mixed with new experimentation should check out. There’s room for improvement, of course, but the improvement will come. In a few years, all of the indie rock websites will be raving about the band. Mark my word and remember that you heard about them from me first.
Meanwhile, the game has been over for a while now. Final score 45-7. It looks impressive on paper, but they will have to improve before they start conference play. In particular their running game needs work. True, 270 yards isn’t bad, but keep in mind that Marshall has no defense to speak of.
And yet as I write this, some band in my home state has skipped the game entirely and is still up at this late hour rehearsing for their show tomorrow night or may even be busy recording their next album as you read these words. While Jim Tressel, Terrell Pryor, and the rest of the team are making the state proud on the turf, these three artists and the many others like them are restoring great music to the state.