Another Creepy Winner from Bobtown

by delarue

Among oldtime Americana bands, no one has better original songs than Bobtown. That’s probably because the band has four first-rate songwriters. Between them, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom and bassist Fred Stesney blend their voices and instruments in a dark mix of bluegrass, country blues, gospel and other rustic Americana styles alongside new band member and brilliant guitarist/banjoist Alan Lee Backer. Their new album Trouble I Wrought also features cameos by drummers Dave Ciolino-Volano and Charlie Shaw and pedal steel player Mike NolanĀ along with M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson’s stark violin, and Dock Oscar Stern’s wry jawharp on one song. The new record expands on the eclectically haunting sound of their brilliant 2010 debut: this time out, they’re a little less stark, a little more lush but just as grim, fixated on death and despair. Consider this stuff antique folk songs for a new century.

On this album, Etzel is the main songwriter. Bobtown’s first album has a number of her songs written in the style of 19th century chain gang chants, and this album opens with one, Mama’s Got the Backbeat – which with different production, could be trip-hop, or gospel-flavored hip-hop. But that’s hardly the only style she works here. Skipping Stone is part banjo-fueled gospel bluegrass, part oldtime hokum blues with jaunty Roulette Sisters-style harmonies: “Today’s precious lover is tomorrow’s tasty bourguignon,” mmmm…

Etzel’s most lavish song here is Burn Your Building Down, a sepulchral grand guignol anthem with swirly violin, banjo and harmonies, building to a towering angst in the same vein as Vespertina. By contrast, her title track clocks in at barely two minutes, its rage semi-concealed in a soaring gospel arrangement over an organ drone. Resurrection Mary is a cheery, harmony-fueled Boswell Sisters-style swing tune…about a murder and a ghost. And Coalville, the lurid tale of a doomed couple now sharing a graveyard, reaches for a plush Nashville gothic ambience.

McDearman seems to specialize in sarcastically cheery, upbeat bluegrass songs. One Public Enemy would have been a perfect fit on one of Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums (hey Dolly, there’s still time…). And McDearman maxes out the suspense factor in the otherwise very pretty Magilla Lee, as the listener grows closer and closer to finding out what happened as the poor girl waited to die. Dahlstrom contributes only one song here, Battle Creek, but it’s the best one on the album. With her searing gospel wail rising over an ominous minor-key backdrop, she paints a cruel portrait of a farm girl slowly losing it in early Rust Belt-era Michigan. Dahlstrom is no stranger to historically-informed songwriting: her Idaho-themed solo album, Gem State, was one of last year’s most intense releases in any style of music.

Not everything is so overtly bleak. Stesney’s two songs here each work a blackly humorous vein: Live Slow Die Old, which comes across as a mashup of Smog, Flugente and the Mountain Goats, and the irresistibly funny faux-gospel Flood Water Rising, possibly the only country gospel song to namecheck both L. Ron Hubbard and Herbert Hoover. There’s also a deadpan cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper, done as tersely creepy Nashville gothic, Backer’s banjo carrying the hook under the womens’ angelic harmonies, a terse banjo/accordion interlude in place of Buck Dharma’s shredding guitar solo. Like Bobtown’s previous album, this is one of the best of the year. The band’s next gig is Sept 21 at 9 PM on an excellent bill with eclectic alt-country siren Alana Amram & the Rough Gems at Union Hall for $10.