He may have grown up in Chicago, but Scorch eschews the blues for bluegrass. Not the usual fare though, filtering in aspects of punk and folk (influences include The Bad Livers, the Mekons and Billy Bragg), Scorch wields his clawhammer banjo like Woody slung a guitar and, while it might not kill fascists, it certainly assists him in giving a bloody nose to those wearing the boots of oppression. The Guthrie reference isn’t just fanciful either, the album features a blazing string band version of Slipknot, Felipe Tobar driving things along on fiddle, a song he previously covered on 2014’s mix tape release Al Scorch’s Moving Company Vol 1.
Social protest is upfront too on Poverty Draft, a more sedate acoustic walzter with shades of John Prine as, backed by French horn, he reminds how it is so often those of limited economic options that become the cannon fodder since “the fight for freedom pays more than minimum wage” while, sung like he’s ducking and diving, the urgent, klezmer-based Everybody Out with its fiddle and clarinet talks of how “every bossman is on another bossman’s take.”
That same fiery musical spirit also drives the banjo frenzy that is Pennsylvania Turnpike, the punky bluegrass 90 second addiction thrash of Want One and, after a deceptively lazy jugband groove intro, the hyperactivly wired pill-popping and daily grind of Insomnia. But it’s not all breathless and breakneck, the world wearied (and lyrically dark) Lonesome Low strips it down to a rolling country melody with a trot-along tempo and the horn-burnished City Lullaby, a song about finding a moment of calm amid the urban chaos that puts me in mind of Steve Goodman.
And if the bulk of the album delivers a political punch, there’s a very personal note to the opening accordion-accompanied number, Lost At Sea, a sort of shanty-Springsteen strummer about his mix of devastation and relief when a close friend had a brush with death in Hurricane Sandy: Feted around Illinois, he’s yet to register on a wider and more international scale, but this album suggests the signs are good.
Circle Round the Signs is out now via Bloodshot
Photo credit: Nick Karp