It certainly didn’t hurt matters that BSC’s maiden voyage in the studio was skippered by Tim Carbone. Railroad Earth’s fiddling guitarist has plenty of production magic to his credit – albums by the previously-mentioned Boris Garcia, The Ragbirds, Great American Taxi, David Gans, Greensky Bluegrass, and his own project The Contribution, to name a few – managing to add another dimension to the sound of whatever already-talented band he works with. Oftentimes Carbone has also added some fine fiddle to complement his collaborators’ sound, but he doesn’t pick up the bow for Bovine Social Club. The killer fiddle you hear throughout the album is BSC’s own Seth Mandel (when he isn’t picking some sweet mando or adding a layer of just-right keys). Imagine having Carbone on hand – who can lay down the essence of anyone from Aaron Copland to Frank Zappa with his fiddle – and not needing to call him in off the bench. Uh-huh: Mandel is that good.
But so is the rest of Bovine Social Club. Scott Hornick takes his big ol’ upright bass to places you wouldn’t think it would even fit, teaming up with drummer Jeff Barg to lay down all sorts of grooves. Guitarist/banjo picker Johnny Smith is a great foil for Mandel with some of the album’s coolest instrumental moments being Smith’s electric guitar weaving with Mandel’s fiddle.
And then there’s frontman Samuel Saint Thomas – the source of that grittiness we talked about earlier. There’s a swagger to Saint Thomas’ vocals that never comes off as cocky – it’s easy to imagine him leading The Pogues or Joe Strummer’s Mescaleros into musical battlegrounds … it’s that kind of swagger. In the meantime, his lyrics paint big pictures full of big characters with big emotions. And his bandmates know just how to build the sceneries for those pictures, characters, and emotions to dwell in.
Tunes such as “Picnics” and “Saweeet” are infused with a rubbery-legged, goofy-grinned Mr. Natural-style vibe – in fact, if R. Crumb’s bearded wiseman ever laid into an electric guitar, I’m betting it would sound just like Johnny Smith’s moments of twang rapture on “Saweeet”. “Picnics”, in the meantime, is pure banjo-powered inescapable, infectious joy – the kind of joy that comes from lying on a blanket with your baby: “jalapeno peppers and a chunk of cheese/wave my pickle in the breeze.” I mean, does it get any better than that?
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