Old Crow Medicine Show: Volunteer
Sony Music – 20 April 2018
Volunteer is the latest offering from latter-day Americana-roots outfit Old Crow Medicine Show, who this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. It follows comparatively swiftly on from the band’s storming, widely acclaimed 50-year-commemorative reinterpretation (reviewed here in June of last year) of Bob Dylan’s seminal Blonde On Blonde album, and to some extent returns us to the chameleon-like character of some of the band’s previous releases.
But what’s apparent from the outset on this new record, recorded at the historic RCA Studio A and produced by Dave Cobb, is that the success of previous studio album Remedy and their subsequent Crossroads collaboration with pop sensation and Nashville resident Kesha have galvanised some kind of desire within the band to present its musical heritage (or its take on it) even bigger and bolder. Which means that what comes across is a more tangible emphasis on surface excitement – and with that, a slightly manufactured vibe that’s moved away from the original spontaneity of roots and closer to the creation of “image” within a conscious variety of musical settings. But I don’t mean that to sound dismissive, for there’s plenty of quality music-making and songwriting on the album.
Of course, the OCMS brand still possesses the chops and the charisma that’s taken Ketch Secor and his chums to where they are now (and lasted so long). The band lineup for Volunteer remains Ketch Secor, Critter Fuqua, Cory Younts, Morgan Jahnig, Chance McCoy and Kevin Hayes, and the sense of crack ensemble and total immersion in that eager good-time groove is intact. But on some of the tracks on Volunteer, it feels like they’ve just gotten gate-crashed by a bunch of mates intent on sharing that good-time – and making sure the fly-on-the-wall listener knows it. Result: it can sometimes be a bit larger-than-life, more like a specially-staged “hoedown number” in a musical than the real thing just getting together naturally. You can catch something of this on Volunteer’s ultra-energetic opener Flicker And Shine, an overtly good-natured barn-dance-party yee-hah cameo complete with fearsome fiddlin’, chorus and shouting, all done and dispatched in under two-and-a-half minutes. The sense of abandon is suitably infectious, so that’s allowable as a one-off and makes for a decent enough curtain-raiser, and the worthily frenetic 1:51 instrumental breakdown Elzick’s Farewell was obviously cut at the self-same session. But the gimmick wears a touch thin by the time the album gets halfway through with Shout Mountain Music (a self-explanatory title if ever there was one!), and even more so with The Good Stuff, a clichéd ode to the joys of liquor (what else?) that to my ears rather resembles the soundtrack to a stock-caricature cornball drinking scene from a Hollywood movie.
Elsewhere, I don’t for a minute doubt that Ketch & Co are totally genuine in their intent to pay homage to their musical inspirations, and it can be fun spotting the assorted inspirations that grace Volunteer’s cheery musical travelogue. There’s considerable appeal in tracks like Dixie Avenue, described as a playful tribute to the Virginia location where Messrs Secor and Fuqua fell in love with music, which comes in a twangy Steve Earle garb. Secor’s composition A World Away, concerning the situation of refugees, musically seems more to echo the generous upbeat spirit of McGuinness-Flint or early Mungo Jerry. Similarly attractive is the gentle-on-my-mind gently-rolling bittersweet nostalgia of Whirlwind (which could almost be taken for a lost Glen Campbell number), and something of the same wistful aura permeates Homecoming Party. Maybe Child Of The Mississippi’s authentic Cooder-esque rootsy-stomp backdrop is compromised just a touch by its compendium of stock images and references. Look Away, a Ketch Secor composition stated to be inspired by The Rolling Stones, is quite akin to a superior outtake from Beggar’s Banquet perhaps (it might in time come to rival Wagon Wheel…). On the other hand, Old Hickory could easily have come from an early Band album, for it definitely draws its idiom from the Dylan-Weight stable.
I can’t fault the playing here one jot, nor indeed the production quality of Volunteer, nor for that matter the songs themselves which clearly display both affection and craft. But I’m left with a nagging feeling that there’s more than a hint of contrivance, “adopting a role” and being all things to all listeners with this album. It’s not exactly commercialisation of roots, but deliberately courting the legends and imagery of indigenous culture, albeit in a perfectly accessible manner. The end-product thus seems to fall slightly uncomfortably between knowing homage and intentional pastiche, so right now I guess the jury’s out on this one.