M Shanghai String Band’s Two Thousand Pennies: Their Best Album

by delarue

M Shanghai String Band are Brooklyn’s finest example of an ancient tradition: the community band. Consider: a hundred years ago, Red Hook assuredly had at least one bunch of local Irish guys playing the waterfront bars, probably many more than that. Meanwhile, the same thing was going on among the Italians in Williamsburg, the Greeks in Brooklyn Heights, and pretty much wherever there were people (instead of cows: much of Brooklyn was farmland back then). These days, divisions among the population occur more on economic lines than ethnic ones. When M Shanghai String Band decided to name themselves after the Havemeyer Street Chinese restaurant whose basement had become their rehearsal and then their performance space, they were just a bunch of locals who had one thing in common; their love of oldtime American music. Fast forward to 2012: they’ve got a new album out, Two Thousand Pennies, and it’s one of this year’s best. M Shanghai were a lot of fun back in the zeros, but who would have thought they’d still be going, let alone putting out a record as brilliantly eclectic as this one? There isn’t a bad song on it.

M Shanghai, who currently boast about ten members, are a string band in the broadest sense of the word: a long time ago, they expanded beyond vintage country sounds to include elements of gypsy music, sea chanteys, British folksongs, oldtime swing jazz, noir cabaret and straight-up rock, all of which they play acoustic. Guitarist Austin Hughes’ gentle, keening voice isn’t the first thing you’d expect to hear from a country band – not that they’re always a country band – but he sings on key and writes fluently in a whole bunch of styles, with a subtly stinging lyricism.

The album begins powerfully with the swaying, broodingly catchy, minor-key Sea Monster, a metaphorically-charged parable of post-9/11 paranoia. Made in the Dark has a swaying flamenco/noir cabaret vibe: we’re all made in the dark, after all, but this isn’t exactly a celebration. Violinist and spoons player Philippa Thompson sings Leaving Oklahoma, which has the mix of resignation and hope of a classic dust bowl ballad, followed by the starkly rustic Shanghai Mountain, sung by its author, banjo player Hilary Hawke.

The soaring title track, Richard Morris’ mandolin blending with Dave Pollack’s full-thoated, bluesy harmonica, cynically explores an understatedly bleak current-day depression milieu. Guitarist Matthew Schickele, the group’s resident ham, sings Marlene, a muted, sad country waltz as well as Sailor’s Snug Harbor – a ruggedly wry oldtime-flavored sea chantey commissioned by Staten Island’s 5 Boroughs Music Festival – and the ridiculously fun Zombie Zombo. Morris sings Entropy, his blackly humorous swing tune: “We idolize the work of human hands…and everything falls apart,” he complains.

Hughes’ Sleeping Engineeer never wakes up during the shuffling, richly nocturnal railroad ballad; Glendon Jones’ creepy gypsy fiddle finally alludes to the consequences waiting just around the bend. Thompson contrasts that with Boxcar, a casually imperturbable hobo song: this particular tramp isn’t about to trade freedom for any kind of stability. Dillinger follows the trail of the legendary outlaw through some gorgeous harmonies to a surprising conclusion; Hawke sings Wrecking Ball Savior, a bitterly beautiful, Appalachian-flavored lament. The album ends with O Lucy, a track that wouldn’t be out of place on a Richard & Linda Thompson album from the 70s. M Shanghai String Band sold out their album release shows at the Jalopy last month; their next one at Brooklyn’s home for all things good and vintage American is at 9 PM on Nov 3 and you’d best show up on time if you want to get in.