The Pines,
(Red House, 2009)

Tremolo, The Pines' sophomore effort, kicks off with "Pray Tell," which sounds like a J.J. Cale piece with a less breathless vocal. That's a compliment; I like Cale, and "Pray" pleases. It alone was sufficient to generate the expectation that the cuts to follow would be congenial ones. They are, though the Cale vibe soon moves out from front and center. Other influences -- Bob Dylan, The Band, traditional music, the Iowa school (Greg Brown, Pieta Brown, Dave Moore, Bo Ramsey) of rural singer-poets -- come to the fore along with The Pines' own touches.

What emerges is something between roots-rock and roots-folk, in a more acoustic alternative to the approach Dylan has taken in his late career -- for a particularly vivid instance, consider "Shine On, Moon" -- without ever falling quite into anything like mindless Dylan echo-mongering. That's probably because The Pines listen to the people Dylan listens to, as opposed to -- the more typical practice -- just Dylan. The Pines' songs, like Dylan's, are full of well-chosen quotes from old folk songs, Woody Guthrie and even literary poetry (in "Moon," W.B. Yeats's "The Stolen Child").

Though The Pines, who are Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt, are youngish, their songs have deeper resonance than one -- or at least I -- would have anticipated. The CD is brilliantly co-produced by Bo Ramsey (Benson's dad) and the band, with some of the Twin Cities' finest rock musicians providing tasteful settings. There's not a lot of rocking-out here; rather, the sound is mostly restrained, even pensive, rolling along largely at mid-tempo.

The two covers make for particular delight. In my listening experience, Mississippi John Hurt's versions of songs are so perfectly whole in themselves that covers usually can aspire only to redundancy, the alternative being embarrassment. On the other hand, Lucinda Williams' reading of "Angels Laid Him Away" (Hurt called it "Louis Collins") is so raw and true that it'll have you reeling. (It's on the 2001 Vanguard tribute disc Avalon Blues.) Williams did it by forgetting Hurt's arrangement and making up her own as if she'd picked the song out of the air. The Pines do the same with Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues" (a "John Henry" variant) to splendid effect. There is also a moving and memorable version of "The Skipper & His Wife," written by Minneapolis' legendary Spider John Koerner.

Over the decades the Twin Cities folk scene has produced such notable figures as Dylan, Koerner, Ray & Glover, Leo Kottke, Dakota Dave Hull and more. The Pines are honorable carriers not only of the larger American folk tradition but of an esteemed local one as well. The music sings through The Pines.

review by
Jerome Clark

12 September 2009

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