CD Review: The Deadly Gentlemen – Roll Me, Tumble Me (Rounder, 2013)
This Boston-based quintet sports a traditional string band lineup of guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass, and though that adds up to the acoustics of a bluegrass band, their original material is something distinct from that of the typical festival players. The differences likely stem from the varied background of the band members: fiddler Mike Barnett, bassist Sam Grisman (son of mandolinist David) and mandolinist Dominick Leslie had traditional childhood immersions in acoustic music, while banjoist Greg Liszt had a dual life as a picker (with the Crooked Still) and a scientist (including a Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT), and guitarist Stash Wyslouch followed a route through rock and heavy metal before settling into country and bluegrass.
The band’s moved closer to traditional song structures over their five years and three records, but the remnants of earlier experiments are still to be heard. Their harmonies, for example, range from traditional high-low bluegrass singing to unison passages they’ve characterized as “gang vocals.” There’s also a helping of country that suggests harmony acts like Alabama and the Statler Brothers. There’s a hopefulness to their tone, even when singing lyrics of failed love, buoyed by rolling banjo, sawed fiddle and fluttering lines of mandolin. The tempos leave little time for dwelling on failure; “Bored of the Raging” emerges from a crawl to a run, and “A Faded Star” waves off inevitability in favor of the changeable present moment.
In contrast, the passing years of “Now is Not the Time” and stagnant living of “Working” seem to spark genuine worries (though the latter does manage a rare use of the word “wankfest” in a song lyric). The band’s hopefulness is also interrupted by the dichotomies of “Beautiful’s the Body” and “It’ll End Too Soon,” each serving up conflicting impulses and no clear answers. Greg Liszt’s songwriting straddles portrait and poetry, drawing characters and situations that layer abstraction on concrete foundations. His optimistic joys and thoughtful concerns give the album a believable outline whose emotional details are inked in by the band’s talented and soulful musicianship.