Carry Me Back
Old Crow Medicine Show
Like the 19th century medicine shows that inspired the group’s name, Old Crow Medicine Show are rooted in another era. The music industry has experienced no shortage of old-school folkies in recent years, with groups such as the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons leading the charge, but these Nashville pickers are cut from a different cloth. Their music is relatively untouched by the modern age, steeped in string-band twang and old-timey country with nary a guitar amplifier — or even a snare drum — in sight.
Of course, the six musicians in Old Crow Medicine Show’s lineup aren’t buskers from the late 1800s. They’re Generation X’ers from the East Coast, and despite their old-world croons, most of them are only in their mid-30s. That’s the problem with Old Crow; it’s hard to shake the feeling that these guys are playing a role, that they’re dressing themselves up in tattered flannel shirts and playing up a Southern accent to enhance their own Americana credit.
That may be the case, but who cares? “Carry Me Back,” the band’s latest album, paints the picture of a bygone world filled with farm harvests and square dances, and it’s a lovely picture indeed. There are war songs and heartbroken ballads, fiddle solos and vocal harmonies, breakneck instrumental sections, and carefully constructed melodies, all swirled into the same sepia-colored package.
There’s even a little contemporary edge to songs such as “Levi,” the true account of a country boy shipped off to die in the Iraq War. “Oh Levi, they shot him down, 10,000 miles from a Southern town,” goes the plaintive hook, which the band beefs up with three-part harmonies and some fiddle licks.
Not every song sounds so convincing, and “Bootlegger’s Boy” — a high-speed bluegrass tune about selling corn whiskey in the Tennessee mountains — fails to shine any new light on a tired topic. “Carry Me Back” sticks to a swift pace, though, barreling its way through 12 songs in little more than 35 minutes, and any missteps are forgotten once the next tune comes along. Yes, there’s something contrived about a young band playing pre-World War II folk music for an audience raised on YouTube and iPods, but there’s something strangely enchanting about that dichotomy, too.
The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle
If Missy Higgins had been born 10 years earlier, the Australian songwriter probably would’ve earned a spot on Sarah McLachlan’s first Lilith Fair tour, storming American shores alongside others musicians with a penchant for smart, folksy pop music.
Miss Higgins has done quite well on her own, though, becoming one of Australia’s biggest solo artists of the past decade without Miss McLachlan’s help. On “The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle,” her third album, she offers up another batch of clean, polished pop songs, decorated with splashes of piano and bright washes of strings.
After writing the bulk of her first two albums alone, Miss Higgins flings up the studio doors this time around, soliciting songwriting help from the likes of Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, Better than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin and fellow Aussie musician Butterfly Boucher. The result is a diverse track list that moves between genres every song, keeping Miss Higgins’ voice at the forefront. “Hello Hello” works a Motown-worthy call-and-response into the song’s meteoric chorus, and “Watering Hole” is a slice of swampy, Southern blues, topped off by harmonica riffs and some soulful ad-libbing from a background vocalist.
Some of the best moments arrive whenever Miss Higgins ushers out her collaborators and sits down at the writing table herself, though. “If I’m Honest” is a breakup song masquerading as something happier, with one clever line — “No one touches me like you … used to” — holding the foundation together. She sings that lyric as she does all others, with a pretty, unadorned voice that doesn’t rely on vocal acrobatics to pack a punch. Razzle dazzle indeed.
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