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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1744

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Who Hit John?: Whistle on the Rail
by George Graham

(Hey Burner Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/9/2013)

While the current commercial pop scene seems to have turned its back on the roots of rock, lately there have been more and more young groups reviving styles that go back even before the rock days. In addition to a multitude of roots rock bands drawing on folk, blues, and some country, there are others who are going back to early jazz, ragtime and swing for their sources of influence. On this series in the past year or two, we have featured Le Percolateur, The Jitterbug Vipers, April Smith and the Great Picture Show, and artists like Madeleine Peyroux whose influence can run from Django Reinhardt to Billie Holiday.

This week, we have another group who draw upon pre-rock styles for their inspiration, in this case early swing and ragtime-influenced music. But it's a group who also spends about half their time doing bluegrass. They call themselves Who Hit John? and their latest recording, their fourth CD, is called Whistle on the Rail.

Who Hit John? is a quintet from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who have been together since 2006. According to their web bio, they began as an old-time string band busking on the streets. Over the years, with some personnel changes, the group has moved into early jazz influence and their instrumentation can include trumpet, fiddle, often played like the violin style of early jazz, banjo, and sometimes an old-fashioned arch-top guitar is used to recreate the sound of music from the era of Django Reinhardt. One might think such a combination of old-time jazz and old-time string band music would be not very compatible, but the group proves their versatility and gets both aspect right, instead of sounding like dilettantes dabbling with old time jazz, as has been the case with other young groups.

Who Hit John's members are Mark Duval, Ishtar Hernandez, Josh Kellen, Dan McCartney and Rick Vanden Vliet. The CD liner notes do now say who played what instrument, though it's likely that they change instruments as they go along. The regular quintet includes at various times, guitar, trumpet, banjo, mandolin, and acoustic bass. There are some extra musicians brought in for specific tunes, including a tuba, trombone, occasional drums and some extra vocalists.

Another distinguishing feature of the group is that all the tunes are original pieces though many of them sound like songs from the early 20th Century. All of the members contribute to the songwriting. Lyrically, the material ranges from light-hearted, old-fashioned novelty songs to a couple sentimental bluegrass tunes, to introspective folk-style songs, to a bit of social commentary. And what makes this group notable is they do well with all the facets, which is a rarity.

Opening is one of their early jazz-style songs Jassbo, a fun novelty tune about the kind of sneaky character who was often the subject of old songs in this style. <<>>

Also with a nostalgic swingy sound is Dandelions. It's a nice mix of a bluegrassy fiddle with an old-time jazz sound. <<>>

The other facet of Who Hit John? comes out on For Old Times Sake. The old-time folk sound is apparently how the band started out. It shows the other side of the group and how they can move easily between the jazz and folk sides. <<>>

Another fun song in the early jazz style is a kind of blues called Daddy's Gone. But there's that fiddle that can evoke bluegrass in its sound. <<>>

One of the more unusual songs for a group like this is Real Men Dig Their Own Graves. It could be interpreted as some social commentary and applied to any number of people. <<>>

The band goes back to its folk and bluegrass mode on a piece called The Sky Hangs Low. It's a kind of sad country song, and again they do well with it, though it's not the album's most memorable. <<>>

On the other hand, one of the CD's best tracks is a old-time jazzy sounding novelty song called Old Joe Brown. It's about another of the disreputable characters who were often the subject of the songs from back the 1920s and 1930s heyday of this style. But it's an original tune co-written by Who Hit John? member Josh Keller and an outside co-composer named Aaron Allen. They capture the sound and mood of this kind of song very well, including the added female backing vocals <<>> and the guitar solo in the Django Reinhardt style. <<>>

It's the other face of the band again on an enjoyable track called Junebug, an easy-going back-porch kind of folk song, that just invites people to sing along with the chorus. <<>>

The CD ends with a hidden track, a live version of the old Latin American romantic song Dos Gardenias, sung by the band's Ishtar Hernandez. It's the only non-original piece on the CD.

Whistle on the Rail, the new fourth album from the Kalamazoo, Michigan quintet Who Hit John? is a fun record that easily flips back and forth between old-time folk and country music and Prohibition-era jazz. The fact that the band can do both very different styles convincingly is impressive. Most of their original material sounds as if it came from 80 or 90 years ago, and they deliver it with a good degree of flair.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The band and their co-producer and engineer Ian Gorman deserve a round of applause for resisting the temptation to make this sound like an old-fashioned recording, as many other groups doing retro music have done. Instead, the sound is clean and it captures the acoustic instruments well. But the dynamic range of the music was undermined, as so often happens, in order to crank up the volume artificially through compression. <<>>

If you are looking to get away from the cliches of contemporary pop or rock, and you can't decide between old jazz or old folk music, then Who Hit John? provides both and quite a few smiles along the way.

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