There are some great songs on the new album by this alt-country-rock band, but too often the record feels hemmed in by its classic influences.
Chances are good that most people will experience at least a mild case of deja vu while listening to Cannery Row, the fifth album by the Deadstring Brothers. The group, based in Nashville by way of Detroit, references classic rock in a big, big way on the record. Think early ‘70s Rolling Stones and the Band. I think I even heard a Bad Company nod in there.
Kurt Marschke, the founder and driving force behind the Deadstring Brothers, has always proudly saluted his influences, and that’s both a blessing and a curse on the new album. Previous Deadstring Brothers efforts, made when Marschke was still based in the Motor City, explored that mix of blues, country and rock that Mick and Keith perfected way back when. Cannery Row, the first Deadstring Brothers record to come out since Marschke moved south, leans more heavily on the country side of things. He and the army of supporting musicians he recruited for the album produce a warm, wistful sound here, with standout contributions from Mike Webb (organ, piano) and Pete Finney (pedal steel). At its best, the album evokes images of dusty landscapes, shimmering highways and tarnished-gold sunshine.
I love, for instance, “It’s Morning Irene”, a song that makes you think about the glorious potential hidden inside the break of every dawn. The track opens with the gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar and Marschke’s twangy vocals, then it kicks into a harmonica-fueled rhythm that chugs along like a train. (Kim Collins’ background vocals give the track an added dose of sweetness.) Another highlight is “Song for Bobbie Jo”, which seems to be a plaintive plea for help from an estranged friend or lover. The song begins softly but builds to a powerful climax that includes piano, stabs of slide guitar and a repeated, heartfelt cry from Marschke: “You know, there’s times when I might need a friend”.
The problem with Cannery Row is that it goes to the same musical well too often. Marschke is in love with that classic, mid-tempo country-fried groove exemplified by a song like the Band’s “The Weight”, and he hits it over and over. Which, if you’re as big a fan of that music as Marschke is, might not worry you. I started to get impatient, though, hoping that Marschke would changes things up, go faster or slower, reach for new sounds. Instead, he remains in his wheelhouse, and as a result it occasionally becomes difficult to distinguish one Cannery Row track from another.
So, this one gets a measured recommendation from me. Marschke is a talented musician and songwriter, and there are some wonderful moments on Cannery Row, but I hope he can move the Deadstring Brothers into some new sonic territory on the next album. When that happens, he could very well create a classic of his own.