Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Overmountain Men

From the most inauspicious of beginnings – a Ramada Inn in Wytheville, Va. – comes the interesting debut from the Overmountan Men. Spinning backporch yarns somewhere between mountain music and The Band-styled Americana, the five-piece Appalachia outfit explores some fertile but not over-harvested ground on Glorious Day, it's first recording.

There's mandolins and accordions, pianos and dulcimers to round out a sound that combines the best of The Decemberists on one hand and The Avett Brothers on the other. It evokes the former with some supple lyricism and storytelling, and the latter through a roots rock format that isn't as strained as alt-country nor as cliched as contemporary country. It makes you remember that banjos, fiddles, harmonicas and pedal steel are inherently fine instruments when handled by responsible performers and songsmiths, and have a role in telling the deep and mystifying stories of the backroads and hollers of the nation's original mountain country, not those reduced to schmaltzy patriotism or pronouncements on the evils of modernity. Let's face it, country music does not need to be so abjectly stupid. It is, after all, one of the few music genres that is uniquely American.

The bulk of the 11-track album finds its centre in singer-guitarist David Childer's evocative portraits of the America he's experienced, one that his Scottish-Irish ancestors encountered in the hickory hills of North Carolina since before the American Revolution. He pays tribute to that legacy by naming is group after the band of American rebels who came down from the hills and proved instrumental in forcing out the Redcoats of the American South. And yet, rather than rubbing his listeners' noses in his patriot bona fides, he instead channels that imagery through a host of scenarios, both historic and contemporary. For instance, he transforms a New York Subway trip into a nostalgic ride on the "Coney Island Express," singing:

"she sings a song, in sad Japanese, on the way to the shore, where the polar bears freeze..."

Childer's Bob Segar-baritone provides the perfect register for the collection with a non-threatening, but plenty warm reference point for exploration. He's the intrepid trail blazer, leading his fellow wanders through the pine thickets and rambling streams to experience places where "Satan's winged soldiers lay seige" and "down yonder meadow where the grass grows green" in tracks like "Glorious Day" and "Rembrandt." The imagery is at the same time haunting and hopeful, bountiful and barbed wire. "Looking for Dr. Caligari" is a foot-stomper – with corresponding the lyrical brand to "stand before you before with bleeding feet" – channeled through a rusty vocal distortion, before drifting off to a leering account of some military engagement from antiquity.

Adding to Childer's mountaineer charm is Avett Brothers' bassist Bob Crawford, guitarist Randy Saxon and Childer's brother Robert manning the trap kit, rounding a full, rich sound further augmented by a cast of thousands as guest musicians contributing fiddle, xylophone, cello and baritone trumpet, among other instrumental highlights. In all, its a fascinating – but not particularly expedient – trip from The Band's Catskills hideout to the more dynamic Southern Rock emanating from Athens, Ga., with convenient detours to Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder and maybe James Taylor's Carolina, and wraps up with the strange 10-minute closer, "Altar of Greed/Muddy Bottom/The Hunch" that acts more like the final sequence of 2001 than anything out of Deliverance. I'd say it was out of place if it wasn't so, well, interesting.

Come for: "Rembrandt"
Stay for: "Looking for Dr. Caligari"
You'll be surprised by: "Altar of Greed/Muddy Bottom/The Hunch"

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