A short list of things I have grown to despise about music in the past, oh, say, 10 years: banjos, ukuleles, big beards, fiddles, mandolins, washboards, V-necks, and vests. It’s a shame, really, because, other than my overall sartorial disdain of the new(ish) Americana movement, that list contains some really fantastic instruments that have been overused, bastardized and abused by some of the most boring bands in music history. Chief among them, Mumford & Sons, the single most snooze-inducing group of hipsters this old, slowly rotting music critic has ever encountered. (Hyperbole intended.)
And don’t let their new shit fool you. It’s just as lame as their old-timey banjo-jangling, just with ambient synths and U2ey guitar swells, an obvious attempt at “staying relevant.” You know, kind of like when Kings of Leon started sucking after their really great (and very raw) first album.
Why am I wasting space complaining about M&S? Well, it’s fun. And it makes a great segue to a review of a Jacksonville band that’s employing banjo-driven Americana as a foundation for their tunes. Oh, and it’s fun!
I must confess that whenever a member of a local group contacts me about reviewing their new CD, I cringe. I know what I’m in for: Between four and 14 songs by musicians trying desperately to capitalize on whatever is breaking the Top 10 that week in the hope that they, too, will be the next next big thing. It’s rare that I’m surprised, but it does happen. Emphasis on rare.
When I received Pilotwave’s release Down the Dial, I was immediately discouraged. The cover is a near rip-off of Climax Blues Band’s Live/FM album, a close-up of a ’70s-era stereo with the selector switch set for AM rather than FM. Derivative? Maybe, if the band is old enough to have experienced an obscure live album by a relatively obscure band. So that’s forgivable.
But then I put the CD in and, good-freaking-god, the banjo starts right up in that hokie foot-stomping way that’s become so popular since the Appalachian hillbillies introduced it so many years ago. It was close, I tells ya. I very nearly took the disc out and sent it sailing across the backyard. Then something wonderful happened. Imagine The Beatles joining The Turtles for a bluegrass jam. Or The Monkees and The Mamas & The Papas doing a tent revival prime-time special. That’s Pilotwave, sort of.
And it’s really fantastic. Album-opener “Break the Ties” blurs the line between newgrass and real rock-and-roll. Distorted slide guitar blends with picked banjo and acoustic guitar in a strangely satisfying way. Rock arrangements clash with down-home bluesy folk. And the harmonies are full-on ’60s pop. I (with a little shame) love it.
Track 2, “Arm in Arm” could be a companion piece to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Kodachrome” with a little more bounce. Then the title track gets a little punky pop (not pop-punk; there is a difference) while “Telephones & Record Players” goes very pop retro, all twangy guitars, strange psychedelic breaks and handclaps. Yeah, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman would have had a good time with that one.
“Grow Old With Me” comes close to the sucky bluegrass of Mumford & Sons, but the odd time changes and unexpected rhythm shifts turn the genre on its head, or at least tottering on its elbow. The barber-shoppy backgrounds are precise and well-put-together. “Busy Busy Bees” features a sitar — and more odd time signatures. And it’s sloppy and loose. A really great track.
I could continue song by song, I could mention the guys by name, I could talk about the production, but what’s the point? Buy the album and support the band. Your copy won’t be as cool as mine, though. Drummer Josh Salestrom’s daughter used mine as a teether, and I think the teeth marks make it a limited edition of some sort. Probably worth a bunch of money. Sweet!
Regardless of my newly acquired wealth care of a munching toddler, Pilotwave is damn good. Good enough, anyway, to shake me outta my deep hatred for modern Americana, at least for the moment. And I want to revel in that, however momentary it might be.
Down the Dial is available through Amazon, iTunes, and pilotwave.net. They are also in rotation at Pandora.