For better or for worse, Thrill Jockey’s reputation precedes it. Strong multiple-album runs by Tortoise and other post-rock outfits helped cement the label’s reputation years ago as a purveyor of arty, expansive soundscapes – a perception so widespread that it seemed to feed into last year’s anti-hipster backlash against Liturgy on the part of the black-metal community even before Hunter Hunt-Hendrix opened his mouth.
Whatever you do, do not approach the Black Twig Pickers’ EP Whompyjawed with any such preconceived notions. In fact, do not expect anything other than traditional string-band music. While the name suggests a sort of “old, weird America” vibe, the contents and production are resolutely straightforward, geared toward the presentation of pure musicianship. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s also not likely to engage anyone whose listening habits are not strongly informed by purist tendencies.
Multi-instrumentalists Mike Gangloff, Nathan Bowles, and Isak Howell lovingly craft two extended tunes. Both “Merry Mountain Hoedown” (at more than 13 minutes) and “Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” (almost 11) feature banjo and fiddle playing in constant rhythmic drive – and engaging in some subtle interplay –against a backdrop of percussion, guitar, and acoustic bass, some of which is provided by guests including Sam Linkous and Joe Dejarnette. Additional support comes from fiddler Sally Morgan. The main fiddle belongs to Gangloff, though it is not always easy to tell who is leading; he doubles on banjo, which is also Bowles’ primary instrument. No vocals appear save for the yelps, hoots and hollers of a man working himself into a dervish.
At its best, and especially on the second track (“Brushy Fork”), the music takes on a transportive quality, everyone involved blending into an almost seamless whole in their shared devotion to the sounds of a pre-modern America. It is not a matter of transcending the stereotypical hoedown image so much as placing you there, feet first, as a participant. Regardless of whether you are dancing or listening, however, a great deal of concentration is required – too much, perhaps, for less than 25 minutes of payoff.
One does not always listen to bluegrass or traditional Americana in the same frame of mind with which one would take in a Phillip Glass performance. If anything sets the Black Twig Pickers apart from other string bands, it is the sort of concentrated intensity that not only sustains itself so easily in long form, but requires more than just a few minutes to reach fruition. This is a particular weakness of Whompyjawed given its format; that is, the group’s strengths are much better suited to LP length. They could work wonders with one hour-long track if given the opportunity.
At the same time, it is worth noting that the Black Twig Pickers are not a jam band. Their sound is a world apart from the Yonder Mountain String Band model (few stray Phish heads will be latching on to this), too tightly locked in to allow any of its creators to wander off into their own ostentatious displays of musical personality. On the plus side, this means no self-indulgence; on the downside, it feels too rigid by half. Your reaction ultimately depends on your attention span and ability to pick out individual interworking elements from a larger tapestry of sound.
On second thought, maybe Thrill Jockey is the best place for them, after all.