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Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

OCTOBER 12, 1998: 

Bad Livers, Industry And Thrift (Sugar Hill)

It’s pretty safe to assume that most bluegrass purists don’t quite know what to make of Bad Livers. Their music has always been somewhat irreverent, even approaching parody at times, what with songs like “Shit Creek” in their catalog. But even the staunchest traditionalist cannot totally dismiss them, because these guys can flat-out play; Danny Barnes and Mark Rubin are world-class musicians by anyone’s standards. Their now-trademark, eclectic virtuosity is unbridled on Industry And Thrift, where they gleefully toss everything but the slopjar into the mix.

Down-home-styled tunes are still plentiful, though; “Lumpy, Beanpole & Dirt,” “I’m Goin’ Back to Mom and Dad,” and “Brand New Hat” are fairly straight-sounding songs that could have come from any of their previous recordings. However, a desire to play other musical styles has definitely made its way onto this release. “Jalopy,” for instance, might be termed Appalachian chamber music – think parasols and mint juleps. There’s a Yiddish waltz (“A Yid ist Geboren inz Oklahoma”), a couple of nice mournful, even heartfelt slow tunes (“Captain, Oh Captain” and “Anna Lee”), and, for the first time, the Livers go electric on the burner “Doin’ My Time.” “I’m Convicted,” cinched to a cheap-sounding drum track and hypnotic banjo drone, might very well be the first technograss song and ranks as one of their finest tunes. Forays into past genres such as ragtime and jug-band music add further dimension.

While a careening, stylistic hayride such as this might throw some listeners off, it’s all in good fun and serves mainly to show Barnes/Rubin’s love and respect for the musical legacy of the South and, most importantly, their ability to wed it to the present. – David Kendall

Martin’s Dam, Sky Above (Hybrid)

Sky Above, the first major- label release from Philadelphia quartet Martin’s Dam, is a veritable pop-guitar delight. The core of the band is composed of two brothers, Scott and Brian Bricklin, who’ve been playing professionally since they were mere lads (they started jamming in bands when they were 9 and 11 years old, respectively). Signed to A&M a decade ago, they produced one critically well-received self-titled debut, but were nevertheless unceremoniously dumped by that label. Since then, the Bricklins have been constantly playing and producing music on their native turf. In the late ’90s they re-teamed with former bandmates Mark Gorman and Gary Gold in the present group, Martin’s Dam, named after a favorite rustic teenage hangout of the band. A demo tape caught the ear of producer Kevin Killen (U2, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello) and the resulting CD offers a fine cross-section of North American rock, with some extra flourishes borrowed from across the pond.

Despite the band’s Philly roots, Sky Above appears to have some distinct Canuck connections, with strong influences from some musical neighbors to the frozen North. Lead vocalist Scott Bricklin has a raspy, ragged voice reminiscent of Bryan Adams, but his vocals possess far more depth and expressiveness than the Canadian rocker. The complex chord changes and otherworldly ambience of “Carousel” and other tracks recall some of the more transcendent moments of Robbie Robertson. And the Bricklins’ predilection for exploring spiritual matters and their excellent songwriting skills bring to mind that inestimable Northern boy, Bruce Cockburn. Still, spirituality aside, the greasy, delicious slice of pure lust on “I Wanna,” with its blistering guest guitar by Francis Dunnery, shows that the brothers are not averse to wallowing around in the material plane on some occasions, and with good results, too. This song parallels Matthew Sweet’s classic “Girlfriend” in its urgent axe-driven evocation of desire. Other highlights include “Take You Down,” a fairy-tale treatment of modern woes with guest Mitchell Froom on organ and the chunky backbeat of a Tom Petty ballad, and “I’m Thinking of You,” featuring a swooning Fab Four background chorus and appropriate gently weeping guitar.

One suspects that co-producer Killen’s presence curbed any alt-rock excesses and kept these songs finely honed. The end result is 10 tracks of pop clarity fueled by creative fretwork that keeps drawing in the listener in an intensely pleasurable manner. In other words, it’s as catchy as can be. – Lisa Lumb

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