Bobtown’s Harmonies Enchant and Deliver Some Chills
Bobtown’s debut album is a blast from the past yet completely original – they really know their roots, but they put an irresistibly unique spin on them. This is dark, vivid, sometimes lurid southern Americana, not the G-rated, sanitized version you hear in folkie clubs in the Yankee states. Their sound revolves around their three terrific lead singers, each of whom contribute songs as well as alternately lush and stark layers of harmonies to the album. Multi-instrumentalist Katherine Etzel holds down the midrange, taking the lead on the rustic Take Me Down, a 19th century-style chain gang song redone as stark suicide anthem with her voice sailing warily over Gary Keenan’s dobro. She also handles lead vocals on the gorgeous banjo-driven country gospel tune When Shall I Go and another swaying chain gang-style number, Boomer’s Blues, alongside guest Paul Pettit’s creepy funeral organ.
Jen McDearman handles the highest registers and excels at quirky, charmingly creepy songs. Black Dog could be cute and chirpy if it wasn’t about the monster in everybody’s dreams. The sad country waltz Don’t Wake It Up, a cautionary tale, warns that some sleeping dogs (metaphorical, this time) should be left alone. And her bouncy country gospel song My Soul is a showcase for the band’s rich four-part harmonies. Guitarist Karen Dahlstrom harmonizes with a finely nuanced alto voice that’s sultry yet plaintive on the old folk song Short Life of Trouble, then soars defiant and bluesy on her kiss-off anthem Hell and Gone. The best song on the album, by bassist Fred Stesney, is We Will Bury You, a genuine Nashville gothic classic that reaches a stirring but disquieting crescendo with all those beautiful harmonies going full blast. He also contributes the bluegrass hellraising anthem Little Bit of Living Before I Die and the cheery traveler’s tale Shadow of the Mountain, which has a tongue-in-cheek video up on the band’s site. Whether on dobro, mandolin or banjo, Keenan plays with a tersely tuneful fire. There literally isn’t a bad song on the album – without question, this is one of the year’s best. Bobtown are just as good live as they are in the studio – they’re at Union Hall at 9:30 on Oct 18.
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