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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1740

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Acoustic Syndicate: Rooftop Garden
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/4/2013)

Acoustic- and bluegrass-influenced jam bands have gotten to be significant sub-genre, with groups like Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, plus the bands led by Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka and two different Bill Evanses -- the saxophonist who added banjo to his fusion group, and Bill Evans who is the banjo player.

This time, we have a new recording by a long-running North Carolina-based family group called Acoustic Syndicate that also generally fits into the genre, with instrumental improvisation, plus banjo and Dobro providing the bluegrass flavor. The new CD is called Rooftop Garden.

Acoustic Syndicate has always been a little more eclectic than many in the jam band field, and this time, they added some synthesizer sounds to their mix. And continuing a group trademark, Acoustic Syndicate creates songs that are uncommonly articulate lyrically for this kind of style.

The band has an interesting background. The founders are brothers Byron and Fitzhugh McMurry and cousin Steve McMurry. The family has been farming on their land in Cleveland County, North Carolina, since the 1700s, and the guys still occasionally spend time on the farm. Steve is the main lead vocalist and guitarist. Byron plays banjo and also does vocals. Byron and Steve each wrote five of the ten songs on the CD. Fitz McMurry is the drummer and also does vocals. The band's bio says that as they were growing up on the farm, the brothers and cousin encountered many migrant workers from the Caribbean and Latin America and absorbed some of those musical influences. But the band members also grew up on groups like the Police and played their music. Though Acoustic Syndicate has toured extensively and played the jam band circuit and festivals like Bonnaroo, their recorded output has been somewhat infrequent over the more than quarter century they have been performing. Rooftop Garden is their sixth album, and their first since 2004.

Last time, on their CD Long Way Around they added a sax player to their bluegrass-influenced sound, recalling the Flecktones, Tony Trischka or Bill Evans the saxophonist. This time, the three McMurrys, who have been singing together and doing vocal harmonies together for most of their lives, are joined by bassist Jay Sanders who has been with them for many years now, and for the first time on record Bill Cardine who plays electric and acoustic Dobro, along with some synthesizer.

The band's sonic trademarks remains, with an easy-going, flowing kind of sound with not many instrumental solos, and the emphasis on the worthwhile lyrics, most of which are quite positive in their outlook. This time, the musical styles are a little more rootsy than their previous CD, with very little of the world music beats that the band has done before. But their rhythmic grooves run from rockabilly to New Orleans, along with the country and bluegrass influence.

The generous 54 minutes CD opens with the group mixing a synthesizer rhythmic figure with a bluegrassy banjo and an airy tune. The piece is called Heroes and it's an interesting stylistic mix. <<>>

Coming in from the Cold has a bit of a New Orleans groove to it, while the lyrics convey a positive outlook. <<>>

King for a Day is another musically interesting mixtures of sounds. <<>> It also gives the band a chance for some instrumental soloing, but I still would not call the track exactly a typical jam-band song. <<>>

For a group with a reputation on the jam-band circuit, Acoustic Syndicate can create some more thoughtful and introspective songs. Hourglass turns out to be one of the best tracks on this musically strong album. <<>>

On the other side of the coin is a piece called Memphis Girls, with its honky-tonk country-influenced sound. <<>>

Epitomizing the band's tendency for articulate but optimistic lyrics is another of the album's highlight tracks Forward. <<>>

The title song Rooftop Garden is one of the more interesting lyrically, though perhaps not the band's best effort musically, running more toward the rock end of the spectrum. <<>>

The CD ends with another rock-oriented track called Beside Me that shows that band can rock out with the best of them. <<>>

Rooftop Garden, the new release by the long-running North Carolina band Acoustic Syndicate, is another fine recording by this group that creates an interesting blend of jam-band sensibility, bluegrass influence and singer-songwriter-style articulate lyrics. It's the first in nine years from this now-quintet founded by three members of the McMurry farming family. Perhaps they were busy with their family business, or the business of families, to get to create new material for an extended period. But for whatever reason, they are back with a new thoroughly worthwhile CD that can appeal to jam band fans and to those who like poetic singer-songwriters.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B-plus. The recording is clean and largely free from gimmicky studio effects or intentional distortion. But the dynamic range, how the recording maintains the loud and soft of the music -- is typically mediocre.

Acoustic Syndicate is a group that does not readily fall into a neat stylistic category, but their new independent CD is likely to appeal to fans of most of the various genres they incorporate into their sound. In other words, it's an album with potentially wide appeal that has a lot going for it.

(c) Copyright 2013 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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