Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Deadly Gentlemen - Carry Me To Home

Rating: B

The "high lonesome sound" has been synonymous with bluegrass since Bill Monroe first assembled his Bluegrass Boys. Vocal performs from Monroe to Jimmy Martin to Del McCoury have continued the tradition of plaintive, mournful tenor vocals and high harmonies. Even modern acts that expand quite a bit beyond the traditional bluegrass sound are enamoured with the classic vocal stylings, from Tim O'Brien to Jeremy Garrett of The Infamous Stringdusters. There's something about the way a high, sad voice cuts through the rhythmic bass thumping and percussive chops and provides a human edge to the technical prowess of bluegrass music.

The Deadly Gentlemen ... yeah, they're doing something completely different. When you first hear Carry Me To Home, it is downright jarring. The band's website describes their vocal style as "three-part harmony singing, group shouting, really dense rhymes, and an almost rap-like phrasing." The clearest example of the oddity in their vocal delivery is the track "Police." The chorus is a call-and-response: "POLICE!!!," shouted by several band members, followed by "are bangin' on my door this morning!," which is neither quite sung nor shouted. Later on we get the band shouting "BANG BANG BANG BANG! BANG BANG BANG!!!" In other words, it's not how Jimmy Martin woulda done it. "The Road Is Rocky," a riff on Bill Monroe's "Rocky Road Blues" is even subject to this treatment, with low harmonized call-and-response and vocal meters that wouldn't be out of place in hip-hop. "Sadie's" vocals consist of alternating spoken whisper and falsetto harmonies against a backdrop of Mike Barnett's weird fiddle sounds and percussive rhythm guitar from Stash Wyslouch.

Perhaps tellingly, the title song, and also the album's best song, has the most conventional vocal delivery. It's not sung the way Monroe would have sung it, but it's the one tune where there's a conscious effort to sound pretty. This probably makes it stand out even more: the harmonized chorus "Someone pick me up and carry me to home!" comes through as really earnest. The chorus is really accentuated by the swell in Barnett's fiddle and Dominick Leslie's mandolin.

In light of that, there's the very good question: does the odd vocal style work? It's high-energy, which keeps the album engaging. It's pretty diverse; for five guys who don't sing (much), they get a lot of different sounds out of the voice as an instrument. All in all, I still love the high lonesome sound, but I respect what The Deadly Gentlemen are trying to do here.

The album as a whole ... hmm. It's interesting. I don't mean that negatively. The unusual vocal sound and feel means it's going to take a while for some of the subtler elements to sink in - I didn't even mention Crooked Still's Greg Liszt and his always-amazing banjo, or David Grisman's son Sam Grisman rocking the bass - and this could be a favorite of mine three months from now. But I'm writing this review today, not then, and so I say: download it now! It's free, for goodness' sake. What are you waiting for?

Download for free at The Deadly Gentlemen official site!

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