God only knows what he meant when he said it, but there’s something to be said for media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s quote “The medium is the message”, as it pertains to Falls of Rough, the fifth album from self-proclaimed “irongrass” band, Cast Iron Filter. How a message is delivered, especially in this information/pop culture-soaked age, is every bit as important as the message itself. To that end, Falls of Rough, an ambitious concept album about life in early- to mid-20th century Kentucky, doesn’t quite measure up.
On Cast Iron Filter’s three previous studio albums (and one live disc), Kentucky-born frontman Dustin Edge and a revolving line-up of musicians fused punk, bluegrass, rock, and country into something they called “irongrass”, earning the band a solid collegiate fanbase throughout the Southeastern US. On Falls of Rough, guitarist/vocalist Edge, along with drummer Brian Burton, mandolinist (and band co-founder) Mike Orlando, and bassist Phil Skipper take their musical view of the South one step further, creating a concept album full of songs narrated by fictional characters from the real-life town of Falls of Rough, KY, spanning the years 1924-1954. They’ve even built a tie-in website, www.fallsofrough.com, with pictures of the characters and letters they “wrote”, chronicling love, loss, and everything in between. As concept album ideas go, it’s one of the best ones I’ve heard in a while; unfortunately, something gets lost in the execution.
So how does this all tie in to McLuhan? This is just one reviewer’s opinion, but if a song is being narrated by a character set in 1924—as album opener “Model T Ford” is by “Johnny Monahan”—then the song should sound old-timey; truly, the medium is the message. All of Cast Iron Filter’s pieces are in place—Edge’s rough-hewn, made-for-Americana voice, Orlando’s plinking mandolin—but the song’s (and the album’s) production is too damn clean. Falls of Rough was recorded at Charlotte’s Reflection Studio, home to both ends of the Southern pop-rock spectrum of the past 20 years: early R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish. Cast Iron Filter, who should’ve aimed for a kudzu-covered-sounding album like Murmur, instead land on the Hootie end of the flow chart.
Time and again the album’s too-clean production hamstrings the good ideas the band wants to share. What is a jazzy vibraphone doing in “Murder Makes a Crimson Sky”, the 1931 murder ballad narrated by town sheriff Lester Coggins? And “Where the River Fades” may be set in 1937, but it sounds downright Springsteen, 1975: “So I’m rollin’ in tonight on the edge of town / With a ring and a waiting hand… / To take you to the promised land / We’re gonna take that road and burn it down / In your daddy’s Chevrolet / I’m rollin’ out tonight on the edge of town / Mary just you and me, just you and me”.
The band comes closest to matching execution to effort on “Redemption”, where 1934’s Mary Louis Green prays for forgiveness after killing her abusive husband; it’s lyrically nuanced and it’s not haunted by the Ghost of Hootie. There’s also three spry, unassuming instrumentals by Orlando—“Chronicle”, “Stringtown” and “Wiregrass Trail”—that capture the feel of pre-WWII Kentucky better than the lyric-based songs do (pure conjecture, of course, given the fact that I was about -40 in 1940, but I likes what I hears in the instrumentals).
I’m not suggesting the songs should sound like they were recorded on wax cylinders or as if they were being played on a Victrola (though how cool would either of those recording techniques be?); it’s just that if Cast Iron Filter is as committed to this clever thematic hook as it seems to be (the songs are arranged by chronological order, with some narrators appearing multiple times, or husbands and wives telling an intertwining story), why not take the final step and sound “authentic”? Albums like Blanche’s If We Can’t Trust the Doctors… and Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992 have sounded convincingly weathered/organic/sepia-toned; it can be done. Cast Iron Filter would have been better served recording Falls of Rough on a porch in the town.