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The Graham Album Review #1995

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The Dead South: Sugar & Joy
by George Graham

(Six Shooter Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/28/2019)

Despite the ubiquity of computer-dependent music that dominates the commercial pop charts, it seems that acoustic groups are not going away anytime soon, and with them, a continuing strain of eclecticism among the artists who forego plugging in. Since the rise of the New Acoustic scene in the late 1970s and 1980s, various groups have been experimenting with taking acoustic sounds in different directions, from traditionally-influenced music, to some of the cross-cultural projects like Night Tree and Oracle Hysterical, which we reviewed recently on this series. There have also been a few what I suppose could be called punk bluegrass bands like the Yonder Mountain String Band and The Old Crow Medicine Show.

This week we have another interesting and creative group who take some elements of bluegrass and old-timey music and give it a kind of rock edge on their acoustic instruments, and sometimes even showing some art-rock influence with quirky arrangements with changing tempos and the like. They call themselves the Dead South, and they hail from Regina, Saskatchewan. Their new third album is called Sugar and Joy.

The Dead South is distinctive in a number ways. Their instrumentation is banjo, guitar, mandolin and cello. Their publicity calls them “a rock band without a drummer, a bluegrass band without a fiddler.” They play energetic music with lyrics that often form story songs that could come out of an old Western movie, with appropriate characters. The group’s members are Nate Hilts on guitar and vocals, Scott Pringle on mandolin plus some guitar and vocals, Danny Kenyon on cello and vocals and Colton Crawford on banjo.

Crawford plays his banjo mostly in the clawhammer style, resembling old-timey music more than bluegrass. Kenyon’s cello is sometimes used as a bass, or even a low guitar, with occasional bowed solos. Together they create music that is a curious mixture of styles, at times sounding like an old Appalachian folk song, and then popping into a kind of almost a rock beat, and at others, veering off into less-conventional time-signatures, art-rock style. The band has attracted an on-line following and has been touring a great deal on both sides of the Atlantic.

After recording their previous albums closer to home in Canada, The Dead South journeyed to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record the new release. And they include a song about Alabamans on Sugar and Joy. However, they don’t bring in any of the Muscle Shoals musicians. The band is self-contained on the album, but the production is well-done, and captures the band’s genre-hopping.

After a short instrumental prelude, the album opens with Diamond Ring whose lyrics are a kind of classic old Western story about a guy who robs another to get his girlfriend the diamond ring she wants. <<>>

The following track Blue Trash sort of makes fun of the band’s music which is not traditional bluegrass. <<>>

The band includes a song called Blue Lung written by one JC Ortiz. Rather than being about mining per se, it’s more about looking at life as a mine. <<>>

The album’s longest track is also story song, Broken Cowboy with more scenes seemingly out of the old West. <<>>

About the closest the band comes to conventional bluegrass is the song called Heaven in a Wheelbarrow. But it features more of the quirky lyrics that are the stock in trade of The Dead South. <<>>

For a band who comes up with imaginative and often curious lyrics, the Dead South does include a fairly conventional autobiographical song about the rigors of being on the road, as many have done before them. Crawdaddy Served Cold is a kind of country-bluegrass stomp, with a guitar riff that borrows from Johnny Cash. <<>>

The Canadian group traveling to Alabama to record was moved to create a song called People of Alabama, with an odd dirge-like marching rhythm. <<>>

The closing song, prior to a short instrumental coda, is called Spaghetti which also seems to come out another imagined cowboy-like character. <<>>

Sugar and Joy, the new album from the eclectic Canadian acoustic band the Dead South, is an interesting one, with non-electric instrumentation, but with stylistic and instrumental twists, and lyrics that weave stories of characters out of the old west, including bandits, robbers and other ne’er-do-wells, served up in a mixture of old-timey style, bluegrass, and rock influence. The result is a clever, sometimes surprising album, especially to fans of more traditional bluegrass. But those who go in for groups like The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine show will probably take well to their music, as will those whose enjoy creative genre-eluding amalgams done with a good degree on enthusiasm.

For audio quality, we’ll give the album nearly a grade A. The sound is clean, and though they can get energetic at time, the recording treats the acoustic instrumentation and vocals well, with freedom from unwarranted studio effects. The recording, as is so often the case these days, was overly compressed losing some of the dynamics of the performance.

In a world of digitally constructed music, if you look hard enough, you’ll find plenty of creative acoustic music. The Dead South’s Sugar & Joy is a great example.

(c) Copyright 2019 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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