OL’ SAVANNAH – DEATH ON THE MOUNTAIN
2013 – Coup d’ Griffe
I have yet to meet anyone that has heard the music of Ol' Savannah who can be described as ambivalent towards this bunch of Canadian ‘hillbillies.’ People seem to love them or hate them (although hate is probably a little strong!) and I for one love ‘em! They are a breath of fresh air with their slightly off kilter take on hillbilly music that blends so much more without ever losing sight of those roots. Artists are often described as having a unique style or bringing originality to whatever genre they are working in, something that is almost as often, an exaggeration! I can say in all honesty that there is no one around currently who is even remotely like Ol’ Savannah, in fact I’m not sure there has ever been anyone like them! The lovely instrumental blend contrasts and often clashes with the raw vocals that Tom Waits in his pomp would have killed to possess, but it actually blends beautifully bringing a dark threatening beauty to every song on the album.
When you add Speedy Johnson’s vocals to the mix, that threatening, sinister air goes up several notches and yet the beauty of the songs is never, (although close on a few occasions) overwhelmed. As well as Speedy, who also plays guitar and harmonica, there is Bartleby J. Budde on banjo and vocals, Kevin Labchuk, accordion and vocals with Tim van de Ven, percussion and Ram Krishnan on bass and vocals. This is the third tremendous recording (their second ‘Underneath the old red barn’ was reviewed here in October 2012) by this hugely talented and incredibly busy band who always seem to be playing live somewhere and I’m told by a Canadian friend that they are the best live band he has ever seen. He is someone whose opinion has some credibility, (at least with me!) having been attending gigs for almost as long as I have! One friend felt that the rawness of Speedy’s vocals was just a studio trick until I sent him youtube links to some of their live performances. His response? They are the real deal!
All songs, with the exception of a tremendous version of the Balfa Brothers Valse De Balfa, are written by Speedy and Bartleby either solo or together, obviously two men on the same wave length with a vision of their music that is constantly evolving, drawing in new ideas that keep everything so fresh and original. Overall the album has a darkness that few can match, with an atmosphere that is an evocation of the ‘hillbilly’ scenes in the old movie ‘Deliverance’ There is always a threatening otherworldly atmosphere to the music, giving the impression that should the listener ever meet this talented band it would be as well to tread very carefully!
The album begins with the incredibly powerful Bury Me On The Mountain and includes some excellent as well as unusual harmonies on a song that even when described as sinister is probably being understated. There is a
slow thudding percussive intro with banjo and accordion on a moody tale that has a slightly threatening otherworldly atmosphere, particularly on the raw snarling chorus that crops up at intervals. The blend of Speedy and Bartleby’s vocals really does have a sinister beauty but that snarling roar plunges into the depths of Hades on a dark powerful song about war and death that offers no release from the darkness. Not quite as dark, but possibly carrying more threat is Swamp Stomp with Speedy’s raw throated vocals driving the song along on a tale that is part hillbilly part punk, although it would be inaccurate and insulting to merely describe the sound as‘punked up hillbilly,’ there is a lot more to the band than that. Thudding bass drum and accordion plus snare combine to propel the song but they can’t outdo Speedy’s vocals! In some ways the accordion if not being their signature sound certainly dots the ‘I’s and crosses the ‘t’s, particularly on this tale that has the feeling of being rooted in the swampy eerie backwoods ‘culture.’ Down By The River is a dark sinister ‘backwoods’ tale that is chock full of threat with the funereal paced guitar intro closely followed by Speedys vocal and banjo, before being joined by the accordion. As the song progresses it speeds up with drums and the bands ‘untutored’ choral sounds giving an almost nightmarish quality, before it slows again and merely becomes threatening, reminiscent of the hillbillies in ‘Deliverance’ but much more scary! Death On The Mountain is a lovely guitar, banjo and accordion driven song, as usual full of a threatening power thanks largely to the vocals, despite the beauty of the accordion, banjo and drums making this an excellent title song that really does define the album. Finally, album closer Man From Oblivion provides more dark sinister vocals on a slow moody song that actually starts out with a light upbeat feel but soon, thanks to the vocals, descends into darkness, but always with the light instrumentation providing an excellent contrast, although soon we have a changed vocalist being encouraged by some bawdy shouting before the darkness intensifies!
Strangely, the overall darkness of the album is sometimes offset by the beauty of the instrumental blend, and yet conversely, there are other occasions where the gorgeous sound of the accordion and banjo playing together, actually deepens the darkness. This will definitely be one of my albums of the year simply because their ability to portray this sinister otherworld has never and probably never will be bettered. A great album that you really should buy and then lose yourself in it’s eerie beauty!