[1 August 2013]
You could easily be misled by the band’s appearance on the artwork for their latest album, Roll Me, Tumble Me. The Deadly Gentlemen look like a bluegrass act, ready to take the stage somewhere nice, or maybe a festival. If you don’t read it that way, you might take the sepia tone and the expression on Dominick Leslie’s face as implying something ironic about their performance, as if they’re going to do something old-timey, but with a knowing wink. Neither reading gets to what the band is.
And while you’re trying to get to the band, it’d be easy to get distracted by their biography. Songwriter and banjo player Greg Liszt somehow has a PhD in molecular biology, has toured with Springsteen, and spent time in Crooked Still (probably as good an RIYL as I’ll come up with, but we’ll get to that). Stash Wyslouch’s background is in heavy metal, which isn’t an obvious place to start from to end up in this sort of act. The other guys are basically prodigies who did things like attend Berklee.
So the band’s an ironic nerdfest riffing on heavy metal and traditional bluegrass? Not exactly. It’s a bluegrass lineup, but Roll Me, Tumble Me lacks both a distinctive bluegrass feel as well as the sort of technical showcases you might expect. That’s not to say there’s no virtuosity here. There is, but the musicianship fits into the songs, developing the overall work rather than letting the artists trade solos. The song structures themselves have much more to do with pop songs than anything else, and, most of the time, it would be easy to imagine a slight change in orchestration and arrangement to convert these cuts into indie-folk or folk-rock.
Even so, there’s enough complexity here to keep the sound interesting. The band’s very tight, which is necessary for these arrangements to work. The musicians still manage to leave plenty of space in the songs. That openness heightens the effect for the periods of driving plucking or quick fiddle melodies. Lyrically, Liszt provides sharp, resonant language, with occasional turns to playfulness. The only weakness is his habit of slipping into Browning-esque syntax. Phrases like the title “Beautiful’s Her Body” come out a bit awkwardly and feel a little pretentious.
If there’s room for Liszt to grow as a songwriter, there’s also reason to overlook minor shortcomings, especially with track like “Bored of the Raging”. That cut relies on a simple, memorable vocal melody, but begins a slow build about 1/3 of the way through. As the lyrics repeat, the music takes off, resisting the titular boredom and re-directing the raging. Everybody gets a crack at this one, but it’s Mike Barnett’s just off-center fiddle solo that stands out. On attentive listening, the song’s carefully constructed, but it depicts a sort of free-for-all at its finest, the kind of looseness that only a well-coordinated band can produce.
The Deadly Gentlemen can do rambunctious and low-key, usually more of the latter but sometimes both at the same time. Across Roll Me, Tumble Me they dip into a little bit of everything without becoming inaccessible. At the same time, they resist the simplicity they feint at, staying invigorating even when they seem calmed.