Flat Mountain Girls – Postmodern traditionalism
“The reason these songs are so cool, and have lasted so long, is that the people who originally sang them were telling what was true for them,” explains Rachel Gold of the Flat Mountain Girls’ fascination with the old-time sounds of the 1930s and ’40s. “They’re like a gift from the past; a musical time machine. What was true then was a yearning for salvation, for connection, wanting a way out of the pain of poverty.
“What’s in it for me is emotional honesty. When the Carters sing, ‘Bring back my blue-eyed boy to me/That I may ever happy be,’ I’m like, ‘Bring him back already, I miss him!”
“Either that, or ‘Throw me some of that goddamn Xanax!'” chimes in guitarist Nann Alleman with a wicked cackle, pulling the rug out from under the previously earnest conversation and delighting when it hits the ground with a resounding “thud.”
Exploring the grayscale between the profound and the profane, Flat Mountain Girls’ music thrives on the tension between the group’s obsession with traditional old-time tunes and the modern twist they instinctively apply to these compositions. Their repertoire and instrumental lineup may be strictly traditional, but the attitude with which they play is decidedly post-everything. You could accurately describe them as “old-time for modern times,” even as the group’s setlist brims with songs credited to Carters, Louvins, and Trad.
The quartet’s origins lie in a chance meeting between banjoist Gold and fiddler Lisa Marsicek (a native Chicagoan who guested on Freakwater’s 1995 release Feels Like The Third Time). Both were new to Portland when they were introduced in 2001. “We got together to do some singing and I said, ‘It feels like we’re starting a band here,'” remembers Gold.
“It was love at first sight,” adds Marsicek. “I knew right away. I said, ‘We can call ourselves Leather Bitches, or whatever.’ We worked out five songs the first day — I was just so excited to have someone to play with!”
Alleman — who also plays in the decidedly more rocking collective Spigot — came on board later through her drummer, a former Chicagoan who was also acquainted with Marsicek. The Flat Mountain Girls released two albums in 2003 and 2005; the latter, Honey Take Your Whiskers Off, is an old-time, gospel radio tour de force. After that record, bassist Laura Quigley was convinced to take time away from her “day gig” in Misty River to complete the lineup.
Their new disc, Idle Talk & Wicked Deeds, is a perfect distillation of the group’s individual instrumental prowess and collective capacity for groove. Serious about craft without being precious about presentation, the group offers up something akin to a sepia-toned, prewar barndance soundtrack. Rollicking, fiddle-driven traditional numbers such as “Sandy Boys” and “Closer To The Mill” snuggle aside the more Baptist concerns of “Little Black Train” and the none-more-black “My Epitaph”, perhaps the album’s strongest performance (and most sober statement).
There’s even a brave take on Robert Johnson’s country-blues classic “All My Love In Vain”, its swinging cadence and flippant sentiment a far cry from the original or even the Stones’ more famous reinterpretation. “That’s country from back when country was good,” Marsicek enthuses. “The beauty of it is that when I’m still playing festivals in my 70s — my boobs will be sagging and my hair will be gray — I’ll be cool.
“It’s not like this manufactured pop music, where you turn 21 and all of a sudden, you’re done. It’s a lifestyle. Sometimes I’ll think to myself, ‘If we don’t do this song, maybe no one will ever hear it again.’ It’s like we’re channeling these voices from the past, all coming out of a wooden Victrola, telling these great old tales.”
“Old-time is a group thing,” Gold says. “You have to let go of your ego and follow whoever’s leading, like at a dance. You’re communing. If we were playing together right now, I’d be looking into your eyes and touching your soul…”
“Without really touching, though,” interrupts Alleman, bugging her eyes out and laughing as she does so. “To me, it’s basically group sex.”
“Right. Old-time is sex without the fluids,” finishes Gold with a sigh, rolling her eyes at Alleman and indulging her as though she’s lived through this Laurel-and-Hardy act before. “It’s the safest sort of sex you can have.”