The Black Twig Pickers – Rough Carpenters

With members simultaneously doing time in experimental hillbilly ethnologists Pelt, you might expect this collection to offer a few more obscure turns like those hinted at on The Poplar Pole.

With its repetitive fiddle refrains (courtesy of founder Mike Gangloff and recent recruit Sally Anne Morgan) the instrument’s extended notes intersect to instigate a body of interweaving drone behind the main melody, like a miniature of Henry Flynt’s New American Ethnic Music.

But, for the most part, the group’s appreciation of outsider forms is restricted in influence to the occasional stretched phrase and a willingness to explore the guts of a tune, drawing out previously hidden elements.

There’s no doubting that the Pickers see their primary role as progressively-minded guardians of the traditional songbook – this time straying beyond the confines of Southwest Virginia for their choices, venturing out toward Kentucky and West Virginia – intent on delivering their selections with an infectious blend of exuberance and joy.

While that passion has always been intrinsic to the band’s approach, Rough Carpenters also finds these musicians at the top of their game, matching the bravura performances captured on 2012’s EP of hoedown epics, Whompyjawed.

Morgan’s bowed strings certainly seem to add another dimension to the Pickers’ sound, elevating it from the porch deck to the cosmos, while Nathan Bowles’ banjo-playing continues to grow in confidence and scope, alternating from bluegrass picking to frenzied frailing to delicate lyrical runs.

Even sounding like oddball revivalist Eugene Chadbourne on closing number I Can’t Stay Here by Myself, his contributions endow the group with its newly-found durability, whereas earlier albums (notably before Bowles joined the ensemble) were prone to running out of juice, constrained by a lack of dynamic depth.

And though the collective’s singing has never been their strongest suit, the vocal arrangements are now heavily weighted in their favour, like the multi-part backing harmonies that chip in during a wondrous version of Jack of Diamonds.

By calling their album Rough Carpenters, the Pickers are inevitably alluding to their creations as constructs of old timber, offered up with spontaneity and passion rather than precision. But it’s also a misleading moniker, for what is unquestionably the group’s smoothest ride yet.

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