One of the very first reviews on this blog was the first album of The Parlor Soldiers (click here for the review). Alex Culbreth is the male half of this Fredericksburg, Virginia, based duo and now has released his 10th solo album, Heart in a mason jar. Those who are familiar with 'When the dust settles' will not be surprised that Culbreth roughly works within the same idiom. So I was presented with a mix of alt.americana, balladry, country and bluegrass. As this is a very traditional form of music, for me the distinction is whether the songs hold up. Let me get to that below. What surprised me, is that there are some rock influences as well, which I also very much like. You will know what I mean if start playing the first song of the album.
If this album teaches me something it is that perfection is not what Alex Culbreth searches for. Passion and at times excitement come closer in my opinion. So no clean singing here, but a voice that shows itself the worse for wear and tear in a charming way. It's rough, with some edges and hooks that can tear up a lyric line where called for. Some people may have to get passed his voice first, but to me he could be the son of Levon Helm. And aren't the songs that Helm sang in The Band, the bests ones, really? So here Culbreth has won me over easily.
Musically the same happens. If he went on to play in The Hackensaw Boys, also from Virgina, just down the road in Charlottesville, they would have a great songwriter among its midst. Some songs would definitely work in this fired-up bluegrass band. Just listen to the way 'Bang bang' kicks in, then you know what I mean. It's not just Alex's voice that reminds me of The Band. A song like 'By and by' would certainly look good on an album like 'The Band'. The setting is just more traditional, with mandolines and violins in there, than most The Band songs.
The album kicks of with the title song, that is more electrically charged than a lot what happens later on. Despite I like the song a lot, it does set the listener on the wrong foot though. The same goes for song number 2 (great title!) 'Drinkin' about you', which is pure country (and nearly too much so for me). It's only after this that Heart in a mason jar comes into its own right. The variation of songs is not something that stops, but it all fits better together. The tempo may go up or down, The Dead Country Stars gel. Regularly the fiddle of Eddie Dickerson and the banjo of Jimbo Carrico stand out as dominant instruments, as they are supposed to in traditional US music.
Several band members sing behind and with Alex Culbreth giving the impression that we all could sing with him. A sing-a-long in the pub or at a summer camp fire, but with people who can really lay down a background vocal. In the duets with singer Rachel Childress, as in 'I'm going to Nashville', Culbreth comes closest to The Parlor Soldiers. With this song we have a beautiful bitter-sweet ballad, that is about leaving, but not as if he does so wholeheartedly. "I hope it's better in Nashville" explains his hesitation. 'Rattle them chains' is again electrically charged and bluesy. By then it's clear that the listener is on a musical adventure and only has to follow the roads and bends Alex Culbreth wants to take. It has become my pleasure to do so, as Heart in a mason jar is a very good and well-balanced album.
There's even a little room for a political message in 'Let's send the politicians of to war'. Perhaps not very original, but it would sure end wars sooner if they got to fight instead of 20 year olds. If they happened at all.
After 'When the dust settles' Alex Culbreth has come up with a very good solo album that ought to appeal to everyone who likes his alt.americana a little bit rough at the edges, but inventive and varied. So do these songs hold up? Oh yes, there's a fan to add to his solo fan base.
Click here for the interview with The Parlor Soldiers on this blog.