When asked by No Depression to review this album, my initial reaction was “Bluegrass again? What more can you say about it?” Plinking banjo, thumping bass, and a good deal of yee-haw. Good fun, but often not much difference between one song/band and another.
Well, I was wrong, of course. Frank Solivan and his band Dirty Kitchen (more about the name later) have created an album that is just about as eclectic as bluegrass can get. Their label, Compass Records, says the band is “defining what bluegrass means in the 21st century.” Sales hyperbole aside, they have a point.
There are some traditional songs on If You Can’t Stand the Heat. Try “Lena,” about as frenetically bluegrassy as it gets with as much plink and yee-haw as you could want. Or listen to “Crooked Eyed John” — slower, but hillbilly as all get out (to use a culturally appropriate phrase).
Other tracks, however, diverge quite substantially from the genre even while they remain true to the instrumental basis of bluegrass in the background. A lot of it is catchy and highly enjoyable.
“Shiver,” for example, is borderline rock with opening mandolin and guitar chops that bring Little Feat to mind. It is not that heavy, but it’s close to anthemic (and my choice for best song).
“Crave,” the first track on the album is plaintive and harmonic. A bit pop, a bit folk, and a bit country, it is one of those songs that has the music nerd in me tearing his hair out to decide what genre it is. But it is decidedly not traditional bluegrass.
In the same vein, “Set in Stone” is rather bluesy, with haunting vocals and a touch of the Western about it.
Then there is “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which is bound to be the best-known song on the album and may well be there to catch the eye. For me, it is never going to replace the Steely Dan original. But the band does use it quite successfully to show that bluegrass instruments and style can stretch quite far without being ridiculous or a spoof (such as the wonderful Hayseed Dixie).
None of this, of course, would be possible if Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen were not a collection of really fine musicians. This comes across in every song, with Solivan standing out on mandolin, Chris Luquette on guitar, and Mike Munford on banjo — all held together by Jeremy Middleton on bass. This band is very tight and the solos are impressive. They are clearly accomplished performers.
As for the name, Dirty Kitchen is an in-joke referencing Solivan’s gourmet cooking. This is apparently so good there is a side project — “The Dirty Kitchen Experience” — in which Solivan prepares a three-course meal for paying customers, followed by a concert with the band.
If that kind of thing takes off with other bands, No Depression may need to bring in some food reviewers.