Paved Country, a band from Cambridge, play multiple guitar-laden music that I’d sooner call lovely than I’d label it as country, folk, or anything else. Sarah Mendelsohn and Marjie Alonso are the creative intelligence behind the group, writing all of the songs (individually, not as a team) but for a Merle Haggard cover, switching leads and singing harmonies for each other. They also both play guitar, and Mendelsohn adds percussion to one track. Jim Scoppa is the third guitarist, Andy Pinkham the fourth. Other instruments are played by a range of guests, notably T-bone Wolk (bass, accordion, mandolin and dobro) and Henley Douglad, Jr. (baritone sax).
I am the son of an old folkie. Judy Collins, Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and the Weavers played endlessly on the stereo at our house when I was growing up. So, naturally, as I entered adolescence and wanted a popular sound to call my own, I rushed to keyboard driven dance-pop (of course, coming of age in the ’80s had something to do with that too…). So: I don’t listen to much folk (though Ewan MacColl, of course, has my respect for fathering Kirsty MacColl). Nor am I much one for country — Garth Brooks still seems like a lightweight to me, though I’ll admit admiring LeAnne Rimes voice. But, I try not to be prejudiced against any genre of music — you never know when someone’s songwriting is going to impress you. I’ve noticed that when I ask people what kind of music they listen to, “All kinds — except country” is not an uncommon response. So I try not to have that kind of automatic disdain.
Still, I didn’t expect to like Paved Country’s Deconstructing Paradise. But there’s something here. Something in fact that, if I’d heard this album earlier, would have made it a contender for my best of 2000 list.
There’s country here, and folk, but there is also rock and other things. I once worked for a woman who maintained that the reason so many people who, (like her) were raised on the rock of the ’60s were now turning to country, was because that’s where many of the elements of that sound (jangling guitars, harmonies) had gone. Listening to this CD, its easy to see her point. The arrangements and playing are particularly strong: Wolk’s dobro on “I Wish Our Love Was New”, Douglad’s sax on “Sentimental Old Fool”. Adam Steinberg contributes some fine acoustic slide to “Surprise, Surprise”. As songwriters, Mendelsohn and Alonso may be slightly better as musicians than wordsmiths at this stage. Alonso in particular seems, to my ear, to need a little more focus on her songs “Step Away From the Woman” and “Now That I Have You”. But both have also written some perfectly beautiful songs here. Mendelsohn gives Scoppa his best features on “Turn Out the Light”, and “Move Mountains”, her own acoustic work can be heard on the latter to good effect. Alonso’s “Waiting On Goodbye” is lovely, and her “Hush Hush” closes the album with a nice lullaby.
The CD is available through the band’s web site.