Purists need not apply...but chances are if you're reading reviews about the new Old Crow Medicine Show album you're not much of a purist anyway. Let the cliche's roll. The third time is the charm. You know a band has made it if they hit a home run on their their third release. And, so on and so forth. But the reality in the music business, that is changing just about daily, is that it is quite a challenge to hit a home run on any album...let alone your third release in a niche genre like new oldtime-jugband-insert descriptor.
I'll say it now. I was not initially blown away by this album. I had high expectations after being turned onto these guys following their debut in 2004 and then actually seeing the show live. My first experience in a concert setting was in front of what felt like 10,000 fans at the Tall Stacks Music Festival in Cincinnati, Ohio. They delivered the goods there, and continued to deliver the goods to their seemingly endless supply of young fans eager for more old time music coming from a modern indie band that dressed like punk rockers and created a sound that many youthful music fans knew they loved but couldn't quite put their finger on why.
Back to the review though. The initial listen was a bit of surprise. Something was certainly different. Could that be an organ? Drums? What happened to the driving banjo and guitjo/banjitar? Largely absent from nearly every track on the album, the most palpable difference between Tennessee Pusher and OCMS's prior albums is that wayfaring, relentless and sometimes reckless drive. I always envisioned their recording sessions to be much like their live shows...a mix of spontaneity and solid musicianship that in my mind at least was recorded with out tracking and dubbing. My illusions about the modern recording industry are not so delusional, but still the sound achieved in OCMS and Big Iron World evoked what I would call a "we just turned on the tape recorder at an all night jam session" feel.
Tennessee Pusher is much cleaner, more polished and perhaps more thought out than the first two albums...for better or for worse. I'll leave the personal sentiments aside about what old timey music should sound like, be it modern or vintage 78. Much like their prior releases, Tennessee Pusher features some fantastic songwriting that is not a lament into poetry or a showcase of cleverly crafted lyrical gymnastics. The songs are straightforward, evocative, sometimes pastoral and leave you feeling as if you just peered into the heart of a lonely America, lost within its own reality.
Drug references, hustlers, murder, love and loss paint a stark juxtaposition between what we would like to envision American rural life as, and ultimately what it has become in many places. Case in point number one...the David Rawlings/Ketch Secor penned powerhouse "Methamphetamine." Given that an overwhelming majority of our nation's additions to this horrible drug come from rural settings, this song hits hard and doesn't let up, with strong imagery of ruined lives and painful loss in the heartland. "Motel in Memphis," another Secor original touches heartstrings with powerful rhythm and lyrical pathos, rescinds the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in fresh way that continues to reiterate the significant loss the nation felt during that period. Again, a small hotel in the "rural" south of Memphis paints the setting.
Its not all addiction and murder on the album though. "Humdinger," sure to be a fan favorite, hits on a chord similar to their prior releases. Late night parties, interesting references to American culture and politics, all wrapped up in a solidly backed original. Although a good friend of mine, and great musician for what its worth, thinks the sexual innuendo is a bit much, "Mary Kitchen" is a solid number that, much like "Humdinger," will rack up the plays on fans' iPods.
I love Willie Watson's vocals on this release. It seems he has really come into his own as singer and major contributor to many of the originals on Tennessee Pusher. Secor's vocals, to paraphrase a colleague, have lost something however. There just isn't that indistinguishable grit to his sound that was ever present on cuts from the first albums. He has a great voice, but, like the general feel of the album, it is much more polished. My first listen tempted me to double check the liner notes to make sure he was actually singing. Secor continues to hit it hard on the harmonica and fiddle though, something long-time fans will be thankful for. And, as outlined above his songwriting is spot on.
I have said this about a couple of recent releases lately - including the killer fourth album "IV" from Chatham County Line - it gets better each time I listen. More than that, I'm finding something new each time and the sound doesn't get old. I'll give OCMS a lot of credit for taking a risk on this one. Some fans might be irked at this direction, but you can't fault a band for pushing their sound into new directions even it if leaves preconceived notions in the dust. The big question...where do they go from here the next time around? Another release in this realm or back to the sounds that made them what they are...at least commercially. The biggest clue will be who produces it. Rawlings, who was on point for the first two albums, or Don Was who worked on Tennessee Pusher. One thing is for certain, Tennessee Pusher will likely turn on a lot of new listeners wary of the banjos and gritty sound of the first two.