With a name borrowed from a 1938 musical washboard that is, perhaps surprisingly, still in production, Brooklyn trio Dubl Handi (pronounced double-handy) bring old-time Appalachian string band music to a contemporary audience via their modern arrangements. Easily finding favour with the audiences of New York City’s unexpected folk revival, January 2013 release Up, Like the Clouds was well-received by fans and critics alike and cemented their reputation as makers of upbeat and danceable versions of well-loved traditional tunes. Two and a half years later, Hilary Hawke, Brian Geltner and frequent collaborator Jon LaDeau return with follow-up album Morning in a New Machine, another set of mainly traditional yet familiar songs.
The new collection gets off to a warm and welcoming start with North Carolina song Cindy, which is at once recognisable from its ‘Get along home’ chorus. It has previously been recorded in various interpretations by singers as diverse as Elvis Presley, Nick Cave (with Johnny Cash) and Robert Plant but Dubl Handi’s treatment has a more authentic old-time feel, with Hilary’s mesmerising banjo and Brian’s pounding percussion setting the scene for what follows.
Lonnie Donegan recorded probably the most famous version of Cumberland Gap, at least in the UK but the rapid delivery on his guitar-dominated skiffle version was far removed from the instrumental original or first vocal version recorded by Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers in 1926. Originally played on fiddle, the Appalachian tribute to a narrow mountain pass appears here with the now well-known lyrics, delivered to an accompaniment of banjo and assorted taps, slaps, claps and resonant kick drum beats, all bookended by a grating cricket’s chirp.
In its various versions Ida Red’s freeform lyrics usually refer – supposedly humorously – to the lady’s enormous girth or heavy weight but in this foot-tapping version, she becomes an object of desire: ‘Ida Red, Ida Blue/Ida Red, won’t you be true?’ The upbeat pace of the song contrasts well with the slow, sad, slide guitar drenched song of child loss Red Rocking Chair in which Hilary laments, ‘Ain’t got no use for that red rocking chair/Got me no sugar baby now’.
Happy optimism returns with the first of three instrumentals Flop Eared Mule, which proves to be a fine showcase for Hilary’s deft banjo work and Brain’s shuffling snare patterns. Beautiful original lullaby-like No Sleep takes a break from the traditional with a relaxed, swaying contemporary country-pop approach, adding guitar, harp and even parping brass to the waltz arrangement.
Doc Watson’s The Train that Carried my Girl from Town comes into sight with a recording of a passing train while Jon supplies a chugging, rock ‘n’ roll influenced guitar rhythm and sings the raw refrain, while the harmonised choruses bring a gospel quality to the song. Hilary returns to vocal duties for final song, a version of Let Me Fall in which a drinking narrator depressingly pleads to be allowed to fall to the ground when drunk and calls on the hard road to kill her dead.
By taking traditional mountain bluegrass and folk music and adding their own updated twist, Dubl Handi have produced an interesting collection of foot-tapping, melodic and accessible updated mountain music. With exemplary playing throughout, both Hilary’s melodic banjo and Brian’s unusual percussion captivate, fascinate and keep a firm grasp on the listener’s attention to the end.
Review by: Roy Spencer
Morning in a New Machine is Out Now.
Order it here via Bandcamp