BLACK TWIG PICKERS – ROUGH CARPENTERS
2013 – Thrill Jockey
This is the Black twig Pickers fifth album made under their own name, having also recorded collaborative albums with the late Jack Rose as well as Charlie Parr and a split album with Glenn Jones, all people for whom terms that include ‘boundary expanding’ are certainly not
exaggerations. Not necessarily hugely experimental, but all are musicians who respect the early recordings and exactly as the ‘old timers’ were pushing the boundaries back in those days, they are doing the same now rather than just copying what has gone before.
Having seen them perform live on a couple of occasions recently I know that this tremendous band actually have the music they play running through their veins to such a degree that it is almost impossible to tell them from a band that could have been around in the 1920s. Each time that I’ve seen
them the lineup was Isak Howell on guitar, mouth harp, vocals, Mike Gangloff, fiddle, banjo and vocals and Nathan Bowles on banjo, washboard, bones, fiddlesticks, banjosticks and vocals, but they have now become a little more expansive with the addition of Sally Anne Morgan on fiddle, hambone and vocals, with these supplemented on this
recording by the addition of Joseph Dejarnette on bass and vocals.
All of their albums are about as authentic as music can be in the 21st century. They really are a genuine throwback, almost as if an old timey string band has jumped into their time machine set the controls for a high Appalachian ‘holler’ in 2013 found a front porch, started playing and switched on the recorder. They give a powerful evocation of what it must have been like 90 years ago to hear this warm, eerie ‘hillbilly’ music played in it’s natural setting, with this album enveloping the listener with its natural comfort, it’s raw friendliness and it’s sometimes almost surreal spookiness! As with their previous albums there is an appealing ramshackleness that is totally natural but only achievable by musicians of the highest caliber, and these are certainly in that category.
With the exception of the title song Rough Carpenters, all songs and instrumentals are traditional and yet that title song is as strong as anything else on the album, pretty much summing up the bands attitude to the music they play. There is a ‘rough’ texture to the music but it is played by highly skilled ‘trades people’ who refuse to smooth off those edges, much preferring (as I do!) the more ‘rustic’ approach!
It would be nice to hear more of their own originals but they bring so much freshness to the‘old timey’
genre that it has a resurrected feel, rather than having just been dug up! On this fourteen track album, nine are instrumentals. I would have preferred more vocals but must admit that those instrumentals don’t do the album any harm, thanks to the quality of the playing and the obvious passion they have for the music. The album opener, Buell Kazee’s Blind Man’s Lament is a really good old timey instrumental with the fiddle at its mournful best, evoking the title’s sentiment perfectly and creating a Spooky otherworldliness that Kazee would most certainly have appreciated. This is followed by a hillbillyish vocal and harmonies on the title song Rough Carpenters, with its tremendous driving banjo and harmonica. On many old timey albums the instrumentals, whilst usually very well played, have an air of saminess, but the Twig Pickers seem able to imbue the tunes that have even the most sparse instrumentation with variety and what is essentially an ability to portray the ‘storyline’ of the song without the use of words, ensuring each tune has its own individuality. An example of this is when comparing the mournful Blind Man’s Lament to the Cajun feel of Charleston Girls, a hard driving fiddle tune on which the fiddles almost sound like a button accordion at times. There is also the wide open spacy sound of Banks of the Arkansas another really good fiddle and banjo instrumental, contrasting with Little Rose, dominated by mouth harp and fiddle and the distinct chirpiness and catchy melody of You Play The High Card And I’ll Play The Ace. All entirely different but with what is basically the same instrumentation, just different ways of using it. On the banjo and guitar driven Roll On John the male and female vocals are hugely evocative of a 1920s ‘hillbilly’ band as is Jack Of Diamonds, this time led by fiddle but well supported by the banjo. The final song on the album, I Can’t Stay Here By Myself, is a brilliant old timey banjo and vocals performance that you need to virtually go back to 1920s Dock Boggs to find anything that is much more eerily sinister on a song that is a powerful old timey spiritual.
If you want to hear ‘authentic old time hillbilly’ music without all of the crackles and pops and distortion of the originals but with all of the feeling, you couldn’t do much better than buying this excellent recording, in fact buy all of their albums. You won’t regret it.