Grandiphonia, the first full-length muster from hometown darlings The Muckrakes, is not an album but an ode to the history of American music.
It reverberates with sonic surprises that sound so natural, it’s easy to forget there were no trippy feedback effects back in the Sun Records days. Imagine Jack Clement twisting knobs all over a theremin. The strong dark wind of the dusty American steppe whips and howls through every track, but so does the musty heat of a dank ratskeller full of angry punks in jackets and jeans.
Parts of the album had me searching the Net to see if Chet Atkins and Pete Townshend ever played together, and if they hadn’t, why no one ever thought to put their guitar sounds together on a folk album. Parts of the album had me wondering if the Muckrakes spied on me during my last days in Chicago: “Drinkin’ in your neighborhood. Passin’ out before the sun goes down. More Haggard than Merle.” This line comes from the track “More Haggard than Merle,” which features short melodic instrumental sections that recall the grace and small beauty of Jerry Garcia’s finest work. This is combined with raucous, maximum rhythm & blues guitars and hard livin’ lyrics to form a song that should be played on every local radio station five times a day for the next six weeks.
The best problem an album reviewer can have is the inability to decide which songs to discuss. I had to narrow it down to six, but trust me when I tell you my choices were arbitrary. Every song on this album is good. “Long Cut” is the Muckrakes at their swinging finest. On one level it’s a song that makes you feel cool—as cool as Johnny Cash. But it is also a fine example of the use of various guitar sounds, vocal harmonies, and a simple start/stop format to give the technical listener plenty to delve into. Each verse brings back a teenage memory. One’s first dip of Skoal. One’s first Allman Brothers’ record: “Guitar solos I love most/Twenty-two minutes of the ‘Whipping Post.’” A ride in mom’s car. On the third verse the Frisellian bed of electric guitars drop out leaving acoustic guitar, mandolin, and pizzicato violin to compliment the vocals. In my ten years writing music reviews, it has been rare to hear such graceful orchestration on a band’s first album… or third for that matter.
“Not Gonna Fall in Love” makes me fall in love with Melissa Troutman’s voice, though listening to Grandiphonia so many times in these past few days has me swooning for all the Muckrakes: Jon Owings, Mike Turner, Jason Russell, Cory Nealon, Billy England, and Dave Jackson. “Wandering Souls” is full on Americana with banjo a picking, harmonies a blending, and crescendos a growing. The song would sound right at home on a Pete Seeger album, but it would do the same on a Widespread Panic album. “Young and Crazy” is Springsteen at his windswept finest. “Trailer Park Love Story” has Melissa Troutman in the spotlight again, this time sounding shades of Emmylou Harris and Jenny Lewis.
You can tell a lot about a band by the way they handle the rigmarole: the starts and stops, the changes, the bridges, the intros, the outros, the logistics of music. What shines through all of these things on Grandiphonia is a band that really enjoys playing with each other, a band that gets excited about each others’ parts, a band focused solely on the music. Clearly getting off on playing, you hear the heart and soul, grit and grime of a collection of individuals. Grandiphonia is a paean to guitars, to mandolins and banjos, to shuffles and stomps, to polyhpony and rhyme. Grandiphonia is a straight-ahead American music record well worth your evenings and dreams.