Jesus, talk about false advertising! What is this, some kind of Coldplay tribute band dragging in from a long night at the pub? The cover of the Boggs' debut album gives us four scruffy lads sitting on their couch looking perfectly bored, perfectly pale, and perfectly English. Just so we get the point, they are decked out in mod, four-button suits and sport immaculate bed-head haircuts all around. Singer Jason Friedman even wears one of those football hooligan scarves and glares at the camera like you spilled a pint of Carlsberg on his shoe. What's next, parkas and scooters? Top it all off with a cutesy English sounding title like We Are the Boggs We Are and what you have is Ready Steady Go's newest hit-makers, right?
Uh, wrong. If the cover leads you to believe the Boggs are another one of those sensitive bands from across the pond like Travis or Starsailor, you're in for the shock of your life. Once the first note comes blaring out of the speakers, you quickly discover that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the Boggs are about as English as a punch in the nose and the nasty sound they make, a primitive and relentless American music, is just as rude.
In truth, the Boggs are a group of street musicians from Brooklyn, New York who met while performing on subway platforms and decided to move their act indoors. They were signed to a record deal after playing a series of shows at punk venues and making their name with a manic live act. However, their music is not punk in any sense except attitude. What the Boggs do is take bluegrass, folk, blues and country, throw them into a pot, and boil them down to their gizzards. It is a raw, rattling noise that sounds like it crawled up from the bowels of hillbilly country. Talk about lo-fi. This stuff makes those Robert Johnson recordings sound like the first Boston record. What's more, the Boggs create all this racket with nothing more than acoustic guitar, drums, banjo, mandolin, washboard, harmonica, accordion and fiddle.
Singer/songwriter Jason Friedman is the creative force behind the band's sound and had a hand in writing all 20 of the album's songs. After hearing Friedman sing, it's hard to understand why he wants to come across as an English art student on the album cover. By the sound of his voice, Friedman is nothing short of a howling madman. Really, he doesn't so much sing as bellow, slur and growl like a man who's wholly unconcerned with little things like lyrics or melody. However, much like his obvious hero, Shane MacGowan, it is the sound of his voice that demands your attention. Try as you might, you won't catch a single lyric on the album or get a single tune caught in your head. Instead, Friedman's singing style connects on the most basic level imaginable. It communicates on pure balls. As it is with all great country, blues, or rock music, Freidman's voice doesn't register in your brain. It registers between your legs.
The album's first three songs deliver its most powerful punch. "Whiskey and Rye" steals the melody from "Goodnight Ladies" and turns it into a drunken, clattering rave-up while Friedman stumbles around like a man who's indulged in too much of what he's singing about. "How Long" follows with a bluesy dirge driven by Zeke Healy's sinister slide guitar and "On North Wood Ground" uses plaintive mandolin and Friedman's distorted vocal to conjure a truly chilling spell. The remainder of the tracks alternate between short instrumentals and other twists on the band's basic formula. "Emily O, Emily" features a duet between Friedman and Emily Jane Oviatt calling to each other by name and wrestling with age-old man/woman troubles, while "Hard Times" provides a much needed breather from the din and is almost pretty in its quiet way.
Strangely, this type of American rural music has become surprisingly popular in the last year or so. The O' Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack came out of nowhere to sell more than four million copies in 2001 and the record business is now predictably repackaging roots music for the suburban mall crowd at an alarming rate. Not to worry though. The Boggs are not some lame attempt to cash in on the hillbilly craze. If there is now money to be made in stripped down country, blues, and bluegrass music, rest assured the Boggs will never see a penny of it. We Are the Boggs We Are is a tough pill to swallow and is not music for polite tastes or occasions. Unfortunately for the band's bank accounts, the album's raw production and unremitting noise will scare off the vast majority of people who make up the new roots music audience. Still, there will always be a smaller segment of the population that craves the type of gut-bucket music the Boggs churn out. If you feel daring and think you might get into a potent blend of country, blues and bluegrass backed up with the street corner energy of punk, O' brother, this is the band for you.
As for that album cover, someone should tell the Boggs that the way to get rich in the music world is to be an Englishman posing as a blues man, not the other way around.