Picture the “epic handshake” meme, with death metal band Rivers of Nihil on one side, bicoastal folk trio The Faux Paws on the other, and smooth saxophone solos in the middle where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers’ ham fists clasp one another. A sax blaring over double bass drums makes more sense than it does crooning over up-tempo acoustic strums, yet its dulcet tones cohere on “She’s Not Looking For You,” the second track off The Faux Paws’ self-titled debut album. It’s odd. It’s quirky. It’s out of place. But there’s so much that’s straightforwardly eccentric about The Faux Paws on paper that the contrast between sounds and sensibilities relaxes into a logical whole regardless.
Brothers Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand met bandmate Chris Miller 10 years ago, toured the country under the Faux Paws banner, and developed their own style by marrying a base of contra dance music with jazz and bluegrass. The former is integral to the VanNorstrands, who played in the contra band Great Bear with their mother, Kim, from 2000 to 2018, while the latter comprises Miller’s own influences. Rolling them all together as The Faux Paws the way a toddler mixes 10 different colors of Play-Doh into one gaudy mass, the three have carved out a unique character in a genre where distinguishing oneself is a surprisingly difficult task.
Take “The Road From Winchester,” the eighth song on The Faux Paws. What begins as a mournful tune with guitars in a duet and a fiddle humming overhead gains a richness, a sensuality, once Miller’s tenor sax steps in about halfway through; that mournful quality doesn’t dissipate, exactly, but the song’s innate melancholy rises up and suddenly turns into something that reads like hope. Even “She’s Not Looking For You” communicates a sense of encouragement: It’s about heartache, but Andrew is singing to a friend, sharing his own experiences with breakups to spare his friend’s feelings. “Maybe there’s no harm in asking / But when you get your answer / Gotta learn to let her be,” Andrew advises.
The Faux Paws are about more than a saxophone, though, even if the saxophone does provide an immediate distinction between the band and other bluegrass-adjacent acts. Their music is whimsical and sprightly; they’re having fun playing, which is likely (hopefully) true of every band, except that not every band takes to their instruments with tongues firmly in cheek. You get the sense Miller and the VanNorstrands spent a lot of time in the principal’s office for mischief. That’s the spirit that grows up to write songs like “Guacmaster,” a wordless and joyful ode to one of the best dips in the world.
All of that exuberance is refreshing, of course, and carries the strength of Miller and the VanNorstrands’ considerable musical talent. They’re undoubtedly good, but they’re also disarmingly affable without being precious. Whatever first impression the trio makes on paper, they make a better one with this record.