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First, to Last

(BOS; US: 30 Sep 2008; UK: Available as import)

Boston-based roots band Oneside seems to be on a path to the top: beloved by seminal music mag Paste, they’ve also gotten satellite radio airtime recently and have appeared three years in a row at SXSW.  Their second full-length record, First, to Last starts off with such promise, thanks to some infectious handclaps and sprightly banjo picking on “The Letter” that’s reminiscent of recent Americana wunderkinds the Waybacks.  Unfortunately, this intro is the most memorable and enjoyable part of the song, and perhaps the album as well.  It’s all downhill from there.  Well, perhaps not so much downhill as the perfectly level dullness of a Kansas highway.

The main problem with First, to Last is that Oneside haven’t developed their own sound, instead choosing to poorly imitate other, better bands.  Half the tracks feature the band giving their best Death Cab for Cutie, sensitive-yet-literate-and-irreverent-indie-group impersonation.  It doesn’t work so well.  Moderately rocking “Got to Go” sounds like the poor man’s Drive-By Truckers, as if Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley decided to mess around with magnetic poetry and set it to some random bluegrass music.  The album’s closing song, “All Over Now”, sees the band trying some Sufjan Stevens-style banjofied melody with average success, but overall, First, to Last is ten pounds of boring in a five-pound bag.  Perhaps the diversity of the musical arrangements was an attempt to pull the songs out of their doldrums, but in general it just makes the record seem disjointed.

Now average musicianship can be forgiven with above-average songwriting.  Unfortunately, Oneside don’t have that either.  To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, the lyrics run the gamut of emotion from A to B, featuring such bon nots as “When they’re playing our song / Nothing could go wrong”.  Someone get these boys a thesaurus!  The strongest song is the oldtimey “Josephine”, which features the tropes of a trifling woman and a deep river … you can pretty much guess the rest.  Though far from original, “Josephine” is probably the most addictive song thanks to its haunting arrangement.

Oneside’s saving grace is the abundance of banjo in each and every song, courtesy of the amazingly talented Chris Hersch.  Their use of this banjo as the integral element in their music may be the only element separating this band from the myriad other average Americana groups out there.  Hersch’s style ranges from Scruggs-style traditional bluegrass banjo, some Avett Brothers-type strumming, and even a little bit of Bela Fleckish innovation thrown in.  Unfortunately, even the favorable banjo-to-guitar ratio is not enough to save First, to Last.

First, to Last isn’t a horrible record; it isn’t even that bad.  It’s certainly bland, instantly forgettable, and criminally boring, but other than that is perfectly competent.  However, in a genre with so many incredible bands releasing music, competent just doesn’t cut it.


Juli Thanki is a graduate student studying trauma and memory in the postbellum South. She tries to live her life by the adage "What Would Dolly Parton Do?" but has yet to build an eponymous theme park, undergo obscene amounts of plastic surgery, or duet with Porter Wagoner (that last one might prove a little difficult, but nevertheless she perseveres). When not writing for PopMatters, Juli can generally be found playing the banjo incompetently, consuming copious amounts of coffee, and tanning in the blue glow of her laptop.

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