Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Chatham County Line: IV (2008)
No doubt there are bluegrass purists who'd object to something or other that Chatham County Line does on their most consistent and emotionally rich album. If there's anyone who can argue with the steady, straight-ahead production of the great Chris Stamey or the airy but tight acoustic arrangements, though, it's hard to understand how. When they're playing together as a band, there's no denying or minimizing their direct command of their form and their adventurous interpretation of it. They can surprise you, as Route 23 had already proven, but they can also break your heart. That's just musically.
It's in songwriting terms that the band seems a cut above, but it's also inevitably here that they will be seen by some as a compromised entity. These are pop songs, through and through. In contrast to the bulk of bands that have been labeled "alt-country" over the last decade or two, including some very very good ones, CCL doesn't really attempt to directly ape traditional songforms or structures. What they do instead, particularly through the contributions of the guitarist and chief composer Dave Wilson, is create immaculately crafted songs that happen to sync brilliantly with their musical interests. (It doesn't hurt that Wilson has one of the most beautiful and instantly appealing voices in the genre.) The hard-won optimism of "Thanks" or the simplicity and beauty of "She" could serve their considerable resonance just as well outside of the confines of the band's traditional sound. That doesn't mean they don't deserve kudos for sticking to what they do well, just that these are not just good recordings, they're great songs. And for a pop lifer who only dabbles in modern country and folk, that makes a big difference.
The songs that most clearly resemble the fine Route 23 are fun and tough-minded. Closer "Thanks" is all gruff, sweet hard-won optimism with a touch of the sardonic, "Country Boy/City Boy" has bounce and sting like the songs that likely led you to them in the beginning, "Let It Rock" reminds that the simple pleasures of beat and swagger know neither age nor genre, and Chandler Holt's contribution "Whipping Boy" makes clear that there's more than one gifted singer and writer in the band (but we knew that). Truthfully, these songs are even the best place to hear how splendidly the band plays together -- I'm still kicking myself for missing them live (twice now!).
But when the record lays everything on the line for pure melody and lyricism, it moves beyond simple floating of skill and grace, and becomes breathtaking. "Birmingham Jail," about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, is almost certainly the best song about the Civil Rights era that a white person will write in this century -- full of sober and novelistic imagery, empathy, journalistic wisdom, and an edge-of-seat intensity from the band. It has the gravity, the rage, the absence of look-at-me flippancy to feel like a potential folk classic.
And yet the smaller, more intimate ideas and recordings are just as moving in their fashions: the alcoholism lament "Sweet Eviction" is the rare folk song that gives a sense of setting as strong musically as verbally ("Stumble by the cathouse / Where the women dance for dollars you made while dreaming"). The melodic permanence, intimacy, wit of "The Carolina" and "Chip of a Star," one driving and gorgeous, the other clipped and warm (and somewhat reminiscent of Sky Blue Sky-era Wilco), connect to us almost automatically, without falling back on the alt-country tropes of cheap machismo and down-home cliché. You feel an urge to carry these songs with you, to know them back to front. And it doesn't take very long.