The Tallboys, |
Technically, the Tallboys' old-time sound is tight as a drum. The fiddle is so precise it slices like ice skates across a frozen pond, the banjo strings are perfectly plucked to remind the listener of a jaunty day out (as in "Walk Along John to Kansas") or shed tears ("Henry Lee"), while the three-part harmonies on songs like "Rainbow Sign" and "Say Darlin' Say" hit all the right notes. And the song selections on their 2005 album Yeah Buddy are appropriately colorful, Lil' Abner-esque traditional titles like "Wild Hog in the Woods," "Squirrel Hunter" and "Quit Kickin' My Dog."
Listening to that album, it's quite evident the band has honed its performance to a science. And I think that may be the problem, because I had a hard time finding much heart or soul on most of the album's 16 tracks. Maybe it's because the Tallboys hail from the Cascades rather than the Appalachians, but it was as if the Seattle-based band crafted its sound via an Excel spreadsheet that listed all the well-researched points of what an old-time band should include. ("Banjo pickin'? Check. Fiddle playin'? Check. Songs with Southern buzzwords like 'Cumberland Gap' and 'Georgia pine?' Check.")
It also doesn't help that many of the album's traditional tunes contain no words, as that only emphasizes the band's homogeneous sound -- which carries over into "Henry Lee," a folk tale about a woman who murders the man who spurns her, telling her he has someone better back home. Now, I'd think the cadence of a song about such a subject would be at least somewhat anguished and sinister; instead, the band plays it as a sort-of leisurely bluegrass waltz. (Check out Nick Cave and PJ Harvey's duet of "Henry Lee" for a stunningly creepy interpretation.)
It's telling that the only song that caught my ears, the 1:52 "Ida Mae" (written by the band's banjo player, Charlie Beck), is the Tallboys' only original song. Its lyrics are vivid and devilish ("Ida Mae / You had your way / You trapped me like a spider / Wrapped me up, then with your fangs / Drained me till I was dry, dear Lord"), and the band imbues it with a down-and-dirty gusto that makes it sound much more authentic than the 15 "traditional" songs that surround it.
15 March 2008
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