The King Wilkie of 2009 is not the same King Wilkie that heartened fans of traditional bluegrass with their youthful prowess five years ago. Nor is it the same King Wilkie that offered weighty, polished acoustic fare even a couple years back. No, this is, quite literally, a different band. Gone is most of the original lineup; co-founder Reid Burgess is soldiering on with a revolving cast of musicians, which now includes a drummer.
The Wilkie Family Singers is something of a concept album, only you’re forewarned in the accompanying literature not to search for a plot, since there really isn’t one. What you are given is characters; members, friends and pets of the Wilkie family, each with a hand-drawn portrait in the liner notes and his or her own MySpace profile. The setting is elaborate, to say the least, and it comes off like something out of a Wes Anderson film: These are children of privilege, a bit quirky, old-fashioned and ill-adjusted to the world.
The songs come from various points of view within this family group. During some, distinct personalities leap out: “Hey Old Man” is a critique of the eldest child’s lack of ambition, set to a guitar figure reminiscent of “Wildwood Flower” and Crosby, Stills & Nash-like harmonies; and the boozy, Vaudevillian number “Dr. Art” heralds the impressive medical successes of the family therapist. But other tracks blend together more, like a languid, harmony-laced dream sequence, albeit a pleasant one, making the songs and the characters harder to distinguish.
King Wilkie are pursuing an interesting trajectory, one that another influential acoustic act (Old Crow Medicine Show) followed in their own way last year: leaping from old-time flavors to a sound that draws equally on more expansive classic rock. Perhaps they wanted to explore a broader swath of American musical territory. Whatever the impetus, The Wilkie Family Singers isn’t necessarily King Wilkie’s all-around finest batch of songs to date, but it’s definitely their most imaginative and ambitious. And that’s no small thing.