Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Red Molly’s Third Album Takes Americana Roots Music to New Places

One of the best-loved and smartest Americana roots bands, Red Molly pretty much live on the road. The seamless, soaring intensity of the harmonies and the chemistry between the musicians reflect it: these women are pros. The obvious comparison is the Dixie Chicks, another road-seasoned group, although Red Molly are lot more rootsy and less pop: they’re one of the few groups out there who can slide into an oldtime vernacular without sounding the least bit cliched or contrived. With their high lonesome harmonies, catchy bluegrass-inspired songwriting and incisive acoustic arrangements, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be any less popular than, say, Lady Antebellum (although in certain parts of the world, Red Molly are already more popular than Lady Antebellum). In case they’re new to you, the “Mollies” are Laurie MacAllister on bass, guitar and banjo, Abbie Gardner on dobro and guitar along with the newest addition to the band, Molly Venter (that’s her real name). Their latest album, James, holds to the high standard they set on their first two, while adding a slightly more propulsive edge which makes sense in that this is the first album they’ve done with drums.

The songs are a mix of light and dark. Gardner gets to show off her jazz chops on the western swing classic The End of the Line – Patsy Cline as done by the Moonlighters, maybe? – with some jaunty ragtime piano from her dad, Herb Gardner. The bitter Appalachian gothic lament Black Flowers could be a classic folk song, its narrator taking pains to explain how the only guy in town who’s doing well is the undertaker. The creepy You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive shatters any romantic notion you might have about Tennessee coal mining country, and Tear My Stillhouse Down wouldn’t be out of place on one of Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums.

Falling In, a suspensefully lush, sultry ballad features some absolutely brilliant, understated drum and percussion work from Ben Wittman, who adds similarly clever contributions throughout the album. Gardner’s Jezebel imaginatively blends blues and gospel influences: beware, this girl’s a barracuda! Fred Gillen Jr. guests on Gulf Coast Highway, a warmhearted portrait of an old bluecollar Florida couple trying to hang on in the new depression. There’s also the slowly crescendoing Looking for Trouble, a cautionary tale for a big boozer; the hypnotic, bluesy Troubled Mind, featuring some memorable violin work from Jake Amerding; the swinging honkytonk blues I Can’t Let Go, a showcase for Gardner’s characteristically biting, edgy dobro; and a gorgeous a-cappella version of the old folk song Foreign Lander. Red Molly play the big room at the Rockwood on 2/24 at 7:30 PM; they’re also at the First Acoustics Coffeehouse in downtown Brooklyn with Pat Wictor on guitar on 3/19.

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February 16, 2011 Posted by | country music, folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Let’s Hear It for the Dixie Chicks

Among the cool bands we’ve never given a shout out to here before: the Dixie Chicks. Yeah, you heard that right, the Dixie Chicks. Texas may have a reputation as a troglodyte state but it’s given birth to plenty of smart, nonconformist women, among them Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire. When they first came out back in the 90s, the Dixie Chicks were viewed as sort of the Go-Go’s of country music, which is more than a little off the mark – the Chicks may have started out as a bluegrass band, but by the time they achieved nationwide fame, they’d had most of the country squeezed out of them. And quality musicianship by women in Americana roots music is a hundred-year-old tradition. But they left a mark. Getting caught standing up to Bush regime repression won them a mainstream audience at the price of the lunatic fringe of their “country” crowd: if not for Maines’ offhand comment about being embarrassed that George W. Bush considered himself a fellow Texan, they probably wouldn’t have reached much more than cult status north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Berklee-trained Maines remains one of the most influential singers of her time, and by the end of the road they were writing most of their own songs, something unthinkable in millennial corporate Nashville. The new anthology, The Essential Dixie Chicks (up at itunes and all the usual spots) does justice to the women who somewhat unexpectedly became one of the very last genuinely good top 40 bands.

The double-cd compilation has most of their best stuff from their post-1998 era (they independently released a handful of highly regarded albums before then); for those who missed them the first time around, it’s as good as any way to get to know them. Interestingly, the sequence of tracks looks at their career in reverse, starting out with the bristling Not Ready to Make Nice, Maines’ response to the tea party crowd in the wake of her anti-Bush comments (which she’s vaccillated about since then). Their feminism is all the more genuine, considering how mundanely they expressed it: women refusing to assume traditional roles, keep sweet or subsume their dreams in order to get a guy. At their best, their sarcastic response to the conformity around them is pure punk rock, perfectly capsulized in the snarling Texas shuffle Lubbock or Leave It, where there are “more churches than trees.” Even before the Iraq war, they took an antiwar stance, more than alluded to here, notably on Traveling Soldier, which was a sizeable hit. The bitterness of the post-Top of the World stuff is visceral; barn-burners like Long Time Gone still resonate good vibes even if they’re basically pop songs with rustic instrumentation, and the blistering bluegrass breakdown White Trash Wedding shows they could still play that stuff if they wanted to. And Earl’s here too: ironically, it was that exuberantly silly murder ballad that established their cred with fans who’d missed their earlier, more traditionalist incarnation. The band’s future isn’t clear, although sisters Robison and Maguire continue as the Court Yard Hounds. If this is it, this retrospective sends them out with the respect they deserve.

November 3, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment