To some, the thoughts of anything strongly rooted in a shade of pure “Americana” are reason enough to jump out of the way in fears that there might be something enjoyable or influential hidden inside. For others who stand in the way of the star-spangled waves and allow themselves to be drowned in the waters of the unique, and sometimes quirky wake of everything that Americana embraces, there is often found a happy group of folks, often in the know of all sorts of hidden treasures lurking around the corner.
Rhode Island band String Builder is one such treasure. Are they pop? Are they country? Folk? Possibly bluegrass? They’re all of these things, really, and then some. String Builder are undeniably original, in the same way that cult favorite Camper Van Beethoven were original. By taking all sorts of musical ingredients that at times seem rather unrelated yet equally beautiful, the band has created a sound here that escapes simple categorization. They liken themselves to the Carter Family, Palace, Low, and Freakweather . . . and that’s just for starters.
The group is comprised of brothers Alec and Joel Thibodeau (both on vocals and guitars), formerly notable for their Greyhound Busking tour in 1999 which found the brothers on a journey to discover the meaning of American culture as defined by its citizens and using their results as a gallery of field recordings and photographic screenprints entitled “From the Curb”. After the tour ended, Alec and Joel scooped up string bassist Margie Wienk and tapped Don Larson for his excellent banjo playing to complete String Builder. The result produced one of the best slices of recorded Americana of 2001.
It couldn’t have happened at a better time, what with the success of both the O Brother, Where Art Thou? film and soundtrack reintroducing many music fans to the sounds of classic country and bluegrass music. Indeed, the opening track on this album, “Blackstrap and Wail”, sung by Wienk and exploiting all of the group’s strengths—namely Wienk’s beautiful voice, smooth vocal harmonies with just the right amount of twang, and Larson’s percolating banjo—is a song that only the crustiest cynic couldn’t find himself tapping his toes to.
That toe-tapping energy is spread throughout the album. On the jumpy “Cataract Revolver”, String Builder bounce around like a jack rabbit as Wienk’s bass thumps happily in the background and the Thibodeau’s tight acoustic strumming take center stage. And in the bittersweet “When All Is Well”, the group remarks, “I shaved away my collars / Now everybody’s feeding on flowers” in a twist of surreal phrasing that beams happily as Don Larson’s banjo plinks away ironically in the background, not unlike an old wild west tack piano.
But String Builder play it straight-forward just as well as they pluck away in their more eclectic settings. “Heaving Klee-ko”, despite the odd title, is just good bluegrass, nothing more, nothing less. On the other hand, the trickling guitar on “Let’s Make Industry History” is one of the most captivating examples of a sound on the album being seemingly out of place, yet working magically all at the same time. It’s not that the sound is wrong—it’s just that it’s different—and this coming from a band that proudly thrives in musical difference.
The band continue their wonderful oddball journey throughout the rest of the album, capitulating between frenzied acoustic strummers like “I’m Not Burning Yet”, and more dramatic, folksy numbers such as “Sculpin’ in the Nettle”. Just when you think you’ve heard String Builder “do their thing”, they turn around and mix up the pot, pulling something new out of the stew once again and turning the album about on its ear.
So fear not the folk. Do not hide from the grass the shade of blue. String Builder are an enjoyable musical experience, not to mention one of the most original sounding groups out there in any genre. Hopefully they will have a long and prosperous road ahead of them. And if not, then they have at least created an album of American beauty that stands proudly on its eclectic feet. As warm and inviting as that crazy patchwork quilt that grandma always had, String Builder is an album that blends the tastefully simple with the attractively strange.
// Notes from the Road
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