[29 January 2014]
When the Avett Brothers stumble across this album (as I’m sure they will), they ought to keep in mind the adage, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Indeed, on their first time out, Americana newcomers Poor Old Shine manage to pull off not just one of the most convincing Avett Brothers imitations ever (“Weed and Wildflowers”), but manage to outpace pretty much everything the Avetts have released in the past five years. It’s been a long road to widespread recognition for the Avetts, but also one that has seen them trade in their hard-won folksiness for a well-produced, pop-rock sheen. Poor Old Shine steers themselves right at their Americana forbears circa-Mignonette, when the Avetts were still a group that still enjoyed stomping around and generally not giving a damn about things like stardom and stadium tours.
Some out there, I’m guessing, will want to launch into the whole “authenticity” thing right away, so let’s have at it: true, Poor Old Shine are not, as much as they might sound it, sons of Appalachia. They’re a bunch of New England guys who met in a college folk club in Storrs, Connecticut. But even if you count that origin story against them, I challenge you to listen to this album and tell me that this group of young men isn’t connecting in some deep way to Appalachian-derived music. Of course, it’s undeniable that they’re working off a blueprint nabbed from revivalists like the Avetts and Old Crow Medicine Show, but a blueprint doesn’t amount to much without a solid foundation. To wit, this is a band that doesn’t hesitate to play “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” for an audience.
I don’t especially like citing music videos or other promotional materials as evidence of one thing or another, but I can’t help but direct you to Poor Old Shine’s pseudo- music video for “Weed Or Wildflowers”, which captures the essence of their charm. A bunch of guys hanging out around a tree making music—slightly dopey, but also enthralling. Tree trunk percussion? You betcha! It’s a special kind of simplicity that I don’t see as often as I’d like amongst these root musicians: here is the band—watch them play. The complete opposite, I’d argue, from the meta-commentary on the nature of representation of “folk” that was Mumford & Sons’ “Hopeless Wanderer”.
All excitement and tree-themed music videos aside, Poor Old Shine is not a perfect album—certain tracks are hit or miss. They struggle a bit with the slower tunes: “Love Song” moves a bit too languidly for its own good, “Ghosts Next Door” takes itself a bit too seriously. As a pseudo-narrative song, “The Hurry All Around” places too much emphasis on wobbly lyrics, coming across like a lackluster travelogue. But that’s a lyrical inconsistency that does little to sink the forward motion of the song, which brims over with harmonium and the traces of musical saw. And once the band resumes a brisk pace, everything slides neatly into alignment. “Right Now” is the equal to pretty much anything Old Crow Medicine Show has ever released. And the final track, “Tear Down the Stage”, wishes for a childhood with less teacherly advice and technology, while serving as a weird companion to the Avett Brothers’ tune “Tear Down the House”, a paean to the destruction of one’s childhood home. There’s the unspoken sense that Poor Old Shine would trade childhoods with Seth and Scott in a heartbeat.
If there’s a random gripe to toss in here, it would be questioning the exclusion of their catchy tune “Sweet Virginia Lee” from the album, a staple of their live shows and a song included on their initial, self-released EP. I also wouldn’t mind seeing their version of Dave Van Ronk’s signature tune “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” show up somewhere, because, sure, Oscar Isaac’s version from Inside Llewyn Davis is great and all, but it’s nothing like the buoyant and rollicking version carried out by Poor Old Shine, which almost manages the magic of ironing out the whole, you know, death thing.