By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Back in prehistoric days, before search functions and social networking, bands considered it a mark of credibility to insist their music was "unclassifiable." But now artists set their own genre agendas, and record labels complicate matters: Winnipeg quintet the Duhks, for instance, claim on their MySpace page that they're both "acoustic/Afrobeat/folk-rock" and "roots, worldbeat, soul"; as if that's not confusing enough, their Sugar Hill Records press bio adds categories ranging from "French lounge pop" to "punk rock." Duhks labelmates Donna the Buffalo—based in the Central New York hamlet of Trumansburg—simply call themselves "Americana/folk-rock" on MySpace, but Sugar Hill opts for the considerably more complex "traditional mountain music infused with elements of Cajun, rock, folk, reggae, and country." And Old Crow Medicine Show, who likewise started out in the fiddle-friendly Trumansburg/Ithaca area before shifting to Nashville, go for "bluegrass/country/folk," though their publicity bio, from Nettwerk Records, professes a "special blend of American roots, rock, blues, and country."
The bottom line is that none of these veteran small-label acts consider themselves purists. In theory, at least, all three bands emphasize rhythm in ways that foil their folkie rep, but they're all limited by acoustic asceticism regardless. Yet they're far from interchangeable, and they all offer hybrids savvy enough to make you wish they were even better than they are.
Bands like this can risk coming off like a chamber trio in the lobby of your local library; check out the reverent parlor-room reduction of western swing offered by Austin's Hot Club of Cowtown if that sort of thing intrigues you. But Donna the Buffalo, for their part, sound inseparable from the Great Outdoors. These are the kind of old Deadheads who probably chose to cover John Anderson's Everglades ode "Seminole Wind" because it's got otters and gars in it; their originals suggest holistic hippies squeezing accordions and strumming washboards on the front porch, two-stepping in the shadow of yonder mountain range—"Rocking in a weary land," as one of their better albums put it. They constantly get cosmic about Mother Earth, and they're known to flesh out their rustic sound with African juju grooves. But, at least on record, they don't go hog-wild with the jamming.
Silverlined, DTB's seventh album, ponders "the force that binds all living things." One song mentions butterflies and dragonflies; a few tracks later, there are bumblebees and beetles, while grand finale "Forty Days and Forty Nights"—partly about how a dog pooping in the grass helps maintain the circle of nature—references Noah's Ark and the Beatles. It's an autumnal record, shuffling and choogling and often weary indeed. But after 20 years, these people play like pros—as they forfeit character, their music gains shape. There's a vague (if well-meant) recurring antiwar theme, but the songs that stand out are the straightforward ones about everyday life: fiddler-etc. Tara Nevins getting impatient about menfolk in the Alanis approximation "Broken Record" and the zydeco jaunt "I Don't Need a Riddle"; guitarist-etc. Jeb Puryear cooing over some "96 Tears"–style organ about his baby daughter "growing up in a rolling home" in "Biggie K." Domesticity on wheels—so when do tour buses get wind power, anyway?
Canucks the Duhks share a lot with Donna the Buffalo: a co-ed five-person lineup, a bluegrass bent more songful than showoffy, Whole Foods–wholesome world-rhythm ambitions, eco-friendly CD packaging reducing the carbon footprint, a label home in Sugar Hill, a Bela Fleck connection. But while they've been casually mixing in gospel dirges and Latin lilts ever since their Renaissance Faire–ready 2002 debut, such omnivorousness increasingly seems their primary mission, especially since the more blatantly blues-proud Sarah Dugas supplanted Jessee Havey up-front last year. Their self-titled 2005 disc—obsessed with death but revolving around pretty songs set in Baltimore and Delaware—is still where to begin, saccharine Sting cover notwithstanding.
When they started out, "Traditional" was the Duhks' main songwriter. On their new Fast Paced World, only one song—another gospel dirge, about Galveston's Great Storm of 1900—gets credited that way. And now they're (rather rigidly) covering Brazilian percussion maestro Carlinhos Brown instead of Leonard Cohen. They're putting more space between beats, too: An instructive analogy might be Los Lobos subjecting their own danceable regional post-folk to artsy studio effects in the early '90s. But though I bet they're in denial about it, the Duhks' forte is still fiddle-jigging, at some confluence of the Celtic and Appalachian and maritime Cajun varieties. And just like on 2002's Your Sons and Daughters, old-man-voiced banjoist Leonard Podolak has the most assured vocal here, in an earthy driving song called "95 South" that manages not to feel too quaint for this, uh, fast-paced world. Dugas's suburban-phobic platitudes in the preachy title track, by contrast, come at least a half-century late.
Live at Joe's Pub a few years back, the Duhks delivered the most zoological joke I've ever heard a band tell onstage: They claimed that they'd "married" their pals in the Canadian agit-folk band the Mammals and would hereafter be called the Platypi. So maybe we need to wait for a live album to hear them truly loosen up. For now, though, it bugs me how their tempos only accelerate when they do instrumentals; unlike, say, Charlie Poole or Uncle Dave Macon or all those other old-timey fiddle-and-banjo post-minstrel '20s and '30s white-blues acts that Geoffrey Himes compared the newest newgrass wave to in a Times piece last fall, the Duhks never seem to want to talk fast over fast jig rhythms.
The one '00s band that I've heard pull that trick off are the five sometimes–Teddy Boy–attired hillbilly-blues cats in Old Crow Medicine Show. O.C.M.S., their not-quite-self-titled 2004 not-quite-a-debut, opened with four killers they're unlikely ever to match: The two speediest concerned cocaine, the groggiest was a drunken Depression poverty blues, and the one original among them was a Vietnam-draft yarn verging on delinquent greaser rockabilly. But Old Crow couldn't sustain such energy through the album: The single was a mediocre rendition of a mediocre Dylan song, and the sluggish "C.C. Rider" left me hoping somebody would teach them about Mitch Ryder.
Two Nettwerk albums later, and for Tennessee Pusher, who's in their corner but Don Was—whose second Was (Not Was) LP Mitch sang on 25 years ago! Old Crow, meanwhile, are still preoccupied, not always in a recreational way, with drugs. That's the subject of the opening subterranean homesick blues-talker "Alabama High-Test" and occupationally hazardous title cut "Tennessee Pusher," not to mention "Methamphetamine," which tackles a hinterlands scourge that more mainstream Nashville is still scared to touch. And, oh yeah, there's also "Humdinger," a commendably quasi-crazed Holy Modal Rounders attempt featuring naked body-surfing on a river of beer. Plus an MLK assassination conspiracy involving the CIA, a rolling-on-the-riverboat closer that alludes to the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, plenty of explicit faux-Dylan myth-making, and plenty more train-whistle harmonica.
Sounds promising on paper, I know, and my inclination is to blame the low-impact outcome on Was's parched production—either that or maybe somebody was worried about offending the delicate sensibilities of Garrison Keillor. All five Old Crows sing, and more than with the Duhks or DTB, you catch all the words. But these guys don't have the melodies or the pipes to pull off the Workingman's Dead they frequently seem to be aiming for, and the music has mellowed immeasurably since those wild-haired opening cuts on O.C.M.S. So when Old Crow Medicine Show say that right-wingers and folk singers aren't invited to their humdinger, I'm confused—because like their roots-rock brethren and sistren, if they're not the former, they're still certainly the latter, no matter how hard they try to brand themselves as a whole new thing.
Old Crow Medicine Show play Webster Hall September 26-27