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The Black Twig Pickers

Rough Carpenters

(Thrill Jockey; US: 19 Feb 2013; UK: 18 Feb 2013)

Must we think of the Black Twig Pickers as an old-time band? Sure, the deal in folk, blues and Appalachian musical traditions is that we often equate it with a yesterday long past. Yes, this band plays acoustic string instruments and uses washboards and the like. But, well, so what? Rough Carpenters, the band’s latest album, argues that folk music is not a sound of the past. It’s not something for nostalgists to sweetly mourn the loss of. It’s not something for revivalists to bastardize into lite new takes on misunderstandings of tradition. It’s a sound still growing, still vibrant, and – in the hands of such skilled players – still excellent.


This new set feels a good deal more rambunctious than past efforts. It was recorded in the same session as last year’s Wompyjawed EP, but sounds more like counterpoint than companion. With the addition of Sally Anne Morgan on fiddle, expanding the band to a quartet, the band sounds as playful as it ever has here. The album starts on a mournful note, with the fiddle piece “Blind Man’s Lament”, but the band seems to recognize the isolation only to leave it behind. The title track that follows is a downright danceable throwdown of swirling banjo and spirited group vocals. They may be “rough carpenters” but the sound they produce is quite refined.


The band expands its palate a bit here, too, expanding beyond the Virginian traditions we’re used to. So we get a new twang on “Little Rose” that plinks and plunks its way along, while the fiddle glides over the fray. There’s also the more bluegrass leaning “Banks of the Arkansas” that speeds up the mix without rushing the brilliant melodies of the song. To hear that song shift into the down-in-the-mud folk blues of “Elkhorn Ridge” is to realize not only the focus of the band but the subtle breadth of their abilities. Dual fiddle piece “Old Christmas Morning” and guitar/banjo jam “Roll on John” are certainly from a similar musical legacy, but the former sounds like the song played in the town square, marking the holiday with its stately form, while the latter is the tune sung at the tavern later and many pints deeper into that night.


From song to song, the energy and pure musicality is remarkable. There is a burred edge to all of this – nothing’s polished to too fine a shine – but the band isn’t hiding behind loose play either. There’s simply a natural unraveling on the edges here, but the tight center remains intact on album standouts like the mournful sway of “Where the Wippoorwills Are Whispering Goodnight” or the foot-stomping “Sift the Meal and Save the Bran”. The instruments here seem to convey stories, teasing tales out of the very wood and strings that make them up. And they do it with such verve that the songs with vocals – often about living too hard or drinking too much – sometimes feel hard to believe. The music itself is so instilled in life that the blues of the words feels like an afterthought, or like a past hurt the band is now shrugging off.


And shrug off they should, because Rough Carpenters is the sound of celebration. It doesn’t feel like a trip back into the past, but rather a reminder that the present need not be filtered through whatever technologies we’ve dreamed up. That below all our so-called modern living, our music should still beat with the same pulse. This music, for all its tradition, feels fresh at every turn, so you’re unlikely to think about yesterday because you’ll be too busy stomping your feet towards tomorrow.

Rating:

Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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