Hollow Log,
Catch a Caber
(Bone Dry, 2001)

Weird. Wacky. This album defies proper description. Heck, I'm not even sure what category I'd put it into. Celtic? Celtic Rock? Well, maybe. Hollow Log's website describes the band as an "all-acoustic wall of hillbilly energy, heavily seasoned with Cajun, Gypsy, and Celtic traditional music." I think that it's safe to say that such a description might be as close as one could come to attempting to categorize this band. I wouldn't recommend the album to traditionalists -- in fact, I'm not really sure whom to recommend it to, since there are so many different elements to their music.

Hollow Log is based in Los Angeles and consists of five members: David Markowitz (violin, mandolin), Paul Lacques (guitars, lap steel, mandolin, jawharp), Jim Knight (bodhran, triangle, saw, oud, kontra, dumbek) and Marc Doten (electric and acoustic bass). All members also provide vocals, and are joined by a number of guest musicians on hurdy gurdy, drums, percussion and vocals.

As far as content goes, this recording contains mostly original songs, with the odd cover and traditional tune. The style is definitely unique. The Cajun influence is responsible for some French language content in a number of tunes, and just looking at the list of instruments might give the reader an idea of how much diversity to expect here.

I can't really say that I like this album, though. I think that Hollow Log's style requires a very specific sort of taste, which I just don't happen to possess. Instrumentally and vocally, there is a lot going on. The music is too busy, and much of the wacky stuff that they do is just too distracting for me to enjoy the sound. It is almost as if the band just can't decide what they want to play, which is fine, but at times the tone changed drastically within a song, and I just couldn't get used to it.

I think that I could go on for pages here about what I liked and didn't like about this album -- it is just so different that anyone who hasn't heard it will be hard pressed to understand what I mean without a lot of description. For the sake of brevity though, I'll just pick out some of the main points.

The first track, "Voulez-vous Danser," is upbeat and features a Cajun influence, a good mix of instruments and interesting percussion, as well as a great bodhran solo. There's something a little off about the harmonies, though. "Lesson #9" is in a sort of country style, with some vocals that are sort of wacky sounding. I like the backup vocals, but not the lead -- it sounds forced and not altogether tuneful. Good instrumentals and rhythms, though. Vocals are again bothersome in "Cookie Jar." There are some good harmonies in places, but in other spots something just doesn't sound right. Interesting instrumentals, but the whole just doesn't sound entirely cohesive, and there's too much going on for my tastes.

"Zydeco Arabienne" must be where the Gypsy influence comes in, because it sounds like nothing I'd ever heard before. Almost a cross between an East Indian and country style. It is different, and unfamiliar, but not unpleasant. I could do without the lap steel, though -- but that's a personal preference, not a reflection on skill. In "Sussex County Drinking Song," the vocals bother me again. The lead singer sounds just fine by himself, but when other vocals are added it changes the tone and I no longer like the effect.

"The Corkage Fee" has a lot of good bits, but overall is kind of disjointed. The intro with the lap steel (keeping in mind that I don't much like the sound of this instrument) sounds aimless and then is joined by an accordion, which plays a melody that sounds great, but didn't really sound related to the lap steel bit. There's good percussion in this one, and when all of the instruments are playing together, I like it. I found, though, that when one instrument takes the spotlight, the overall sound is changed and I am not fond of the result. Good percussion dominates in "For You," which almost reminds me of traditional Native American music at the beginning. I like the melody to this song, but not how it is sung. I just didn't like the harmonies at all -- somebody sounded a little off-key. The also do some really interesting things with their voices, which were neat but distracting to me.

In "Bouree dite d'Aurore Sands" there are some quite different instrumentals and unique combinations. I'm not sure if it's just because my ears aren't accustomed to these sounds or because there are too many instruments, but the overall effect doesn't strike my fancy. Old-time country music fans might enjoy "Corn," a fun and rather wacky tune with lyrics that match the tone well.

My personal favorites are the last two tracks. "The Homestead Strike" is an energetic version of a traditional song, with good whistles and violin. The harmonies are much better here, too. "Catch a Caber" is a great set of reels, with an a cappella vocal bit in the middle. The whistle at the beginning is excellent, the harmonies are good and the instrumentals are well-blended in this upbeat set.

I have a feeling that I would appreciate Hollow Log more seeing them live. There is a lot of humour in the recording that likely would become more apparent in a live performance, and some of the vocal elements that I don't like might be less prominent onstage. This album likely won't be gracing my CD player too many times ... but maybe that's just because my tastes are too tame!

[ by Cheryl Turner ]
Rambles: 10 August 2001