The Bills,
Let Em Run
(Red House, 2005)

Technically speaking, this is the Bills' third release, but it is the first the band has recorded under this name. In its previous two CD incarnations (which I have not heard), it called itself the, er, Bill Hilly Band; then, I guess, wiser heads prevailed. In any event, this is the group's first U.S. release, issued by the well-regarded modern-folk label Red House Records, based in St. Paul and home to a range of major artists including Spider John Koerner, Eliza Gilkyson, Bill Staines, Greg Brown, Jimmy LaFave, Peter Ostroushko and more.

The Bills, five guys from Victoria, British Columbia, are none of them named Bill. They are, on the other hand, all young and all steeped in a range of folk and vernacular musics, starting with their native Canada's dance tunes and nautical ballads and moving out from there, sometimes to the streets and dance halls of Eastern Europe and South America. The CD opens with a piece that fuses tango, Romany violin and piano rag. It's quite entertaining, though not a precise introduction to the more downhome approaches that follow. The entertainment part survives intact, though.

Let Em Run is exactly what the listener will want these racing Bills-none-named-Bill to do. I hear a lot of good music, and Lord knows the Bills are good at what they do, but they're even better than that: they're also a whole lot of fun to listen to. You don't have to afford Bills your undivided attention to notice that they love what they do. Humor and hot (but tasteful) licks fly out of their instruments, and a joyful noise rises out of their throats and through the speakers and into your ears. If they're this exciting on record, I shudder to think what they must be like in person.

The 15 songs and instrumentals are none of them traditional; yet to one degree or another tradition of one kind or another gives them life and breath. Of the one-step-backward, two-steps-forward school, the Bills have soaked up the lessons of the past masters in the same way, broadly speaking, that another notable Canadian band, the Band, absorbed its own influences. In fact, the Band is among those past masters the Bills have learned from; here and there (as in the title tune) they may strike you as something of an acoustic stand-in for that legendary folk-rock ensemble. At other times -- the unaccompanied "Bamfield's John Vanden" in particular -- they are able to craft a song that could easily pass for something somebody thought up a century ago at least. Elsewhere, you hear traces of jazz, French muzettes, pre-rock popular music and even hints of classical, all wrapped in clean and seamless garb.

Except for the instrumental "Stardust," the cuts are otherwise originals, set in arrangements in which accordions, fiddles, mandolins and guitars fashion a deceptively rustic soundscape. The ghosts of old-time string bands and French-Canadian accordion-and-fiddle dance groups lurk in the background, and their presence is, of course, nothing but entirely welcome. What's going on in the foreground, however, is fresh, innovative, and almost ridiculously charming.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 2 July 2005

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