THE BEAN PICKERS UNION – BETTER THE DEVIL
2012 – Self Released
The band name gives the impression that this is going to be a classic ‘hillbilly’ band, but they are very far removed from this old timey genre despite an eerie moodiness to much of what they have recorded on this excellent album. In many ways they remind me of British band ‘The Blue Nile.’ Generically they have nothing whatsoever in common but there is a high quality, sparse musicality, as well as tremendous playing and evocative vocals and some beautiful songwriting that lets you know this band is not only different to most of their generic companions but also of an exceptional quality and originality. To play music constructed in this way requires not only a high degree of talent but also a confidence in their ability to project the stories and music in this slow moody, almost minimalist way, plus, of course, the co-operation of the producer. In this case there is that in abundance with Steve Mayone and Bow Thayer covering production duties at Thayer’s recording studio in rural Vermont and both contributing their varied instrumental skills as well as backing vocals to Chuck Melchin’s eleven beautifully poetic songs ‘of despair, hope and redemption.’ Chuck has been making music for around twenty years in the north eastern U.S. as both a solo artist and with his band ‘The Bean Pickers Union.’ This is the second Bean Pickers album, with the 2007 debut ‘Potlatch’ being highly rated and raved over by all who heard it, including me!
The sparsity of the sound and slow moodiness in most of the songs exposes the vocals, which fortunately are strong enough to cope and where harmonies are required they are excellent. Chuck has a pleasantly clear, warm vocal style that allows the listener to concentrate on the lyrics without trying to decipher any histrionics. In some ways his vocals remind me a little of America’s Gerry Beckley, with the occasional harmonies also being of the quality of that band, although apart from the sparse instrumentation there is little else that is reminiscent of them, the Bean Pickers having far more power and variety. Although I requested a copy of the lyrics and received it within a matter of hours, for a change you actually don’t need a lyric sheet, they are quite easily discernible on this beautifully produced album!
The mainly dark haunting songs never get much above a slow moody pace but because of the reflective nature of the tales and the excellence of the writing, singing and playing it always seems varied and atmospheric. Magnolia opens with a mournful organ on a highly descriptive song that has some gorgeous steel guitar, organ and banjo supporting Chuck’s expressive vocals on a story that really creates the frustration of being stuck in a rut, albeit with a lovely poeticism and a sense of desperation. Burning Sky is a really evocative beauty, with it’s lovely melodically twangy electric and acoustic guitars and excellent mandolin solo, allied to a nice shuffling drum sound on a tale of a man longing for the love of a woman who haunts the bars but who responds with ‘You can have my body, but you cannot have my heart.’ A simple premise but an epic story of sadness and an unknown history and future. Down has a lovely haunting steel guitar and a nice blend of fiddle and mandolin that all combine to give this slow moody tale a powerful feel on a song on which returning to his love is beginning to lift him from the depths of
despair, starting with the journey and ending with some idyllic reflections on a Sunday morning. Numb has an eerie organ in the background combining with an evocative violin that enhances the haunted feel combined with a very good lead vocal on a sad tale of someone who has reached rock bottom and is no longer able to seek a way back up. Another simple but poetic reflection on the dark side of life as many of these stories are. None of the drama’s are enhanced by over the top exaggeration but are simply allowed to express some of the sad events that many will experience through their lives.
This is certainly not a recording of upbeat music but it contains ten thoughtful reflective snippets of some of lifes sad events, and with it’s few glimmers of optimism seems to inveigle itself into the consciousness and improve
with every listen. A really rewarding album that given a chance repays patient and repeated listening.