Blind Corn Liquor Pickers

Popmatters

Every week the line between folk and indie gets blurred a little more – see the Avett Brothers, Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, Shoves and Rope, and about 1,000 other bands who space won’t permit me to list here – and Kentucky octet (!) the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers are doing to their part to transcend genre on their fourth full-length, Myths & Routines. The BCLP aren’t afraid to expand on the bluegrassy sound that fuels their albums; they call it “Kentucky bluegrass stretched to its modern limits.” Guitarist Nick Fahey provides a welcome rock edge to the mandolin/banjo/violin mix. But the album’s best tunes hew closest to stereotypical Appalachian tropes: there’s moonshinin’, on the menacing “Reaper’s Jug” (“If the moonshine don’t kill me, it won’t be for lack of opportunity”), the drunken, fight-prone boob-flashers who co-narrate “The Welder”, and charming broke-guy-woos-a-gal “Frank’s Song”. (For what it’s worth, there’s also a song about adult-diaper-clad-astronaut-would-be-murderer Lisa Nowak.)

 

On a more serious note, though, chief lyricist Travis Young is interested in getting out and seeing the world – if not to escape suburban ennui, then as an act of self-improvement and definition. The narrator of “Runner’s High” chases the titular feeling to escape the black cloud born when his woman left town. Similar lines run through “Open Seas (Cohen’s Song)” (the band’s best bid to be the Alabama Shakes), “The Moment to Be Born”, and the optimistic closer, “The Great Unknown”. Usually, you either embrace your home or get the hell out of there, but on Myths & Routines, the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers show that there is indeed a Third Way.

Rating:

American Roots UK

BLIND CORN LIQUOR PICKERS – MYTHS & ROUTINES
 

 Picture

2012 – Blind Corn  Music

4****


             On first couple of listens to this, Blind Corn Liquor Pickers fourth album, I just didn’t get what they were trying
to achieve. I then purchased digital versions of their previous three albums, had a good listen to them and the picture cleared a little. The problem, as I saw it, was that there are so many disparate elements fighting for survival, such as the banjo and mandolin competing with drums and electric guitar on music
that is basically acoustic based Appalachian in feel. As if that was not enough their lead vocalist Beth Walker has a voice that is more steeped in blues than ‘hillbilly’ perhaps even veering towards a soul or rhythm & blues ‘shouter.’ Whilst their first two albums consisted of male lead vocals, by the time their 2008 album ‘Appalachian Trail’ was released Beth was a full member and took on most of the lead vocals. Their music originally, whilst slotting into the bluegrass or to a degree old timey, consisted of songs with either comedic or political elements as well as good time drinking songs and ‘murder ballads.’ This changed a little on ‘Appalachian trail’ but on this current recording there
are only three members of that band remaining and as Travis Young, lyricist and banjo player told me via email, ‘
there are some new themes on this album, themes of heartbreak, existential crisis, parenthood and personal discovery, themes that are probably inevitable for a band that's fast approaching middle age. To match the new themes we revamped the sound, adding drums and electric guitar to the mix, and working in new members who fit the new vision. Once we were satisfied, we took it all down to local indie rock engineer Duane Lundy (Ben Sollee, Vandaveer,
These United States), who put the finishing touches on the arrangements and tracked all the tunes.
 
             The band is now a seven piece with the only surviving members from that previous album being Beth Walker on guitar and most lead vocals, Joel Serdenis, vocals, guitar and mandolin and Travis Young on banjo. The remainder of the new lineup is Frank Ward, vocals and guitar, Ben
Vogelpohl on drums, Nick Fahey plays Electric Guitar and Will Rush, bass. In the case of the songwriting, Travis writes most of the lyrics and Joel Serdenis most of the music, whilst Beth Walker and Frank Ward contributed a song each. 
              Strangely, on‘Appalachian Trail’ Beth’s vocals seemed a little further back in the mix and captured that appealingly untutored ‘hillbilly’ feel that gives the music much of it’s authenticity. On
this one she seems a little more forward and there is more of a tutored or perhaps confident feel, as a consequence of which she seems to stretch out more, instilling her vocals with a tremendous power that at times seems a little at odds with the music; almost like a powerful soul or rhythm and blues singer trying to blend with a hillbilly band. In much of this they do succeed thanks to the tremendous musical talents within the band and aided by the use of electric guitar and drums that takes a little of the edge of the ‘hillbilliness,’ signalling the fact that this is no ordinary Appalachian folk band but one that is determined to experiment as far as their talents will allow; and that is quite some distance!
             Every song is incredibly well written, with a strong memorable melody and lyrics that really paint pictures of people, events and places. On most of the twelve songs Beth is lead vocalist but there
are some excellent harmonies and several evocative lead vocals from male band members, particularly on
The welder, a tale with a large slab of humour on which they all seem to chip in with
vocals on a song that is more in line with their previous releases. It starts with a chiming mandolin intro followed by lead vocals which are shared between Beth and Joel with harmonies from all on what is basically an excellent, highly irreverent good time drinking song that includes some terrific fiddle playing as well. Reaper’s Jug is a powerful, defiant paean to ‘moonshine’ and an affront to the grim reaper! The power of Beth's vocals and the hard driving instrumentation that includes chiming mandolin and banjo should see him off on this blend of old timey and alt. country. North Carolina kicks off with a lovely fiddle and mandolin, before Beth enters with her powerful vocal and some nice acoustic guitar on this tribute to the state. The
Great Unknown is a gorgeous straight country song with Beth almost showing a little restraint and tenderness, with lovely steel guitar and mandolin, joined by nice chiming banjo. Terrific song, as is The Open Sea (Cohen’s Song) with the lovely chiming mandolin and banjo joined by the electric guitar on a song that veers from a ‘hillbilly’ feel to country rock with some evocative group harmonies and Beth’s increasingly soulful lead vocal. In many ways a song that shows off the bands diversity within the space of four minutes!
             Challenging, the album may be, but the more I play it the more I enjoy it! The term ‘a grower’ could have been coined to describe this album of so many diverse elements that do actually seem to gradually blend together into a highly original strain of roots music that includes country, country rock, old timey, bluegrass, blues, soul and a few other disparate elements. Those elements don’t always work too well together but when they do this album bursts with an ebullient musicality. Even where it doesn’t quite work you get the impression that this band are never going to stop their experimentation and toe the line. I certainly hope they don’t and whilst I can’t say I like everything on it, ultimately, I love the album! 
 

Rambles.NET

Blind Corn Liquor Pickers,
Appalachian Trail
(independent, 2008)


Let's start with an obvious truth, obvious truths being in rare supply when the subject is so elusive an entity as the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers. Which is to say that any band able to conceive, and then write plausibly, a song titled "Intelligent Design" merits our awed regard. Yes, I suppose in its prime the Incredible String Band could have done the same, and it would be mystical and beautiful, too, and probably a sound-alike to the ISB's 16-minute epic "Creation" (Changing Horses, 1969). But the BCLP are funny about it, and -- at a crisp 3:38 -- a whole lot more succinct. "ID" is about ... well, it's not about creationism by another name; yet then again, it sort of is. It turns out to be a bluegrass song about a blue-collar loser who expresses his plight in words that hilariously echo the jargon of an evolutionary biologist:

It's just the tools I was given...
I've got a bipedal gait...
I've got opposable digits...
I've got a skill for using tools...
I've got a faculty for reason.

Yet, asks the bewildered, beleaguered narrator, "If the design is so intelligent / Can you explain the shape I'm in?" If you put it that way, who hasn't wondered that?

Travis Young, banjo, vocalist and co-composer for the band, tells me that serious consideration was given to titling this album (their third) after the song. Too bad that it got another, not quite so interesting. But of course we rarely buy records for their titles alone, and potential consumers will want to know that Appalachian Trail continues the delirious twisted-bluegrass sound of its predecessor, Anywhere Else?, which I reviewed in this space on 28 January 2006. Four members are now five, with the addition of singer Beth Walker (whom one would have no trouble imagining at the front of an r&b band). Samuel Kruer has replaced Todd Anderson on bass. Tom Fassas continues on guitar and vocals, as does Joel Serdenis on mandolin, fiddle and vocals. Four guest musicians on various instruments -- fiddle, bodhran, trumpet and melodica -- pop in here and there.

Probably, this sort of thing began with the Holy Modal Rounders in the 1960s. By "this sort of thing" I mean hipsters posing, if not terribly hard, as hillbillies. The BCLP's very name amounts to an over-the-top parody of bluegrass-band names, usually meant to evoke a mythic Southern backwoods and all that implies, in this instance not excluding physical disabilities occasioned by the consumption of cheap, unregulated 'shine. The BCLP, based in Lexington, Kentucky, have the distinction of being superior musicians whose affection for the bluegrass genre, along with broadly related Celtic, mountain, jug-band and honkytonk traditions, is never in doubt. In fact, when they play it straight, the effect is lovely and even manages to draw un-ironic tears. There is, for example, the pretty, affecting "Yellow Roses," a band original like everything else here, and not to be confused with other songs of the same name. "Charlie the Bastard," a decidedly unfunny ballad based, one suspects, on actual events, chronicles a violent man's bloody end in the Southern mountains, ca. 1933.

At other times, as in the title tune and in the aforementioned "Intelligent Design," the band is playing something like the recognizably rolling twang of bluegrass, except backwards. Plenty of songs in the genre call the listener to imagine riding trains and buses or to think back to the old homestead, but nobody travels the lost highways or dreams of the log cabin on the hill the way the BCLP do, or with rhythms akin to theirs. By the time you pass down Appalachian Trail, even the most familiar spots along the road will start to feel like places you've never seen before. It can get confusing, all right, but don't worry. It's the best kind of confusing -- all surprise and delight, with the kind of shock that engenders unexpected laughter. I love these guys.