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Starlings, TN: Between Hell and Baton Rouge

Jason MacNeil


Between Hell and Baton Rouge

Display Artist: Starlings, Tn
Label: Chicken Ranch
US Release Date: 2004-01-27
UK Release Date: Available as import

Starlings, TN has managed to refine a lot of the traditional Americana influences they wear proudly on their sleeves. The tandem of Steve Stubbefield and Tim Bryan made some inroads with its debut Leaper's Fork but have taken a far greater leap on their sophomore record. While there are hordes of bands trying to get by on the same vast mountain sound that has become chic in recent years, Starlings, TN sound like they could be doing this for a long time to come. Judging by the 15 tracks presented on this attractive disc, let's hope that's the case.

The record begins with "Tramps Rouge", a tune that starts off like a cinematic score before the strings and orchestral overtones surrender to the mandolin and hoe down flavors. It's a bit like Wilco's Summerteeth without the droning guitar drowning out the other ingredients in the song. "The whole world is frightened," the Dylan-esque line goes as the band recaptures just a touch of his earlier records. It's toe-tapping without being too sugar-coated. A dreary and rain-soaked blues ensues on the lovable "Forbidden Fruit Makes A Sticky Jam". You can almost envision the group will be doing this on somebody's front porch in their later years with the same verve delivered here. Slowly adding light percussion without taking away from the homey quality, the song glides along as the Delta comes to the fore.

Starlings, TN's ability to consistently draw from this history, whether blues or traditional "mountain" or even early country, is what sells the listener on it. "My Sweet Love Ain't Around" moves into a blues-cum-Hank country but ambles along gorgeously as a banjo is plucked. Working to a lesser extent is the rather straightforward "Corbitt up the Mountain", a rambling folk-roots troubadour song that doesn't sound out of place but doesn't do much to amaze you. In fact, it uses the same formula as the opener tune, only having fiddle replace guitar as the constant background effect. But the same blueprint on "Longsome Road Blues" has a far better effect, dating back to the likes of Ralph Stanley and others of yesteryear. The mandolin accentuates the subtle guitar that rarely comes to the fore. Mandolin and more mandolin is what drives the song, making it rather special.

Perhaps the highlight of the record is a fine rendition of "Wayfaring Stranger" that comes complete with mandolin and fiddle. Rolling with the very slow tempo, the group crawls along with the tune from start to finish, keeping it from becoming a dirge with some spirited playing, singing and picking. This pales compared to the only live tune presented, a blistering "Ruben's Train" which brings to mind fiddle maniacs like Doug Kershaw doing the likes of "Orange Blossom Special". The same intensity is brought to the pretty and catchy "Last Five", again with a similar sound to the opener tune but with more of a gospel slant in the lyrics. It's as if the band is trying to finish the song on the run with a freight train on their heels.

If there's one huge curveball thrown in, it has to be the electro-back beat that gives "Weight of Love" a very different flavor. It works to a certain extent, but seems to have the group trying too hard to please pop fans. Most pop fans would've tossed aside the album by now, so there's no need to include what might be considered filler or, unfortunately, fluff. This is atoned for with the pristine "Brush Arbor", keeping it simple and mountain-based. The only thing missed is a few yodels or hollers in the tune. "Let's go back to the harbor, let's go back to the wood," the line goes, summing up most of the song if not the album itself.

The album ends with two better-than-average numbers, including the no-nonsense "Revengin' the Death of Charlie Sapp". It leads perfectly into the lengthy "Burnin' up the Blacktop/Lazyana". The latter might be a tad long-winded, but overall the song is indicative of the album -- traditional for today's palette.

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