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The Black Twig Pickers - Whompyjawed

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Artist: The Black Twig Pickers

Album: Whompyjawed

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Jul. 24, 2012

“Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” squeals to life in a sawing fiddle riff, its Appalachian lilt undergirded with the hard punch of hands on wood, the thump of feet on floors. The song, which dates to the Civil War era, hurtles forward with fresh, unruly life. At this speed, intricate patterns form and unform as whorls of fiddle, plunks of banjo and scratchy scrapes of washboard intersect. Yet, the sense of joy, of celebration, of dance overwhelms the complexity. As the tune gets going, the players cannot suppress their hoots and “yeahs.”

The Black Twigs Pickers — primarily Mike Gangloff, Nathan Bowles and Isak Howell — have been breathing fresh air into archival material for about a decade now, both in their core trio formation, and augmented by like-minded musicians, including Jack Rose and Charlie Parr. On this EP, they are joined by some frequent live collaborators — fiddler Sally Morgan and Sam Linkous and Joe Dejarnette switching between guitar and bass. Their concern is swing as much as accuracy. Although Gangloff has spent plenty of time picking the brains of old-style players, and exerted lots of effort nailing down the tunings and shadings and techniques of pre-WWII string band music, this is no sepia reproduction. Both these songs — “Merry Mountain Hoedown” and “Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” — rattle, clatter and rampage like living, breathing songs that might, and perhaps do, take an unexpected turn at any moment. You can hear, for instance, in “Merry Mountain Hoedown,” the wild, gleeful difficulty of violin lines that chase each other’s tails, one picking up before the other finishes, the melody doubling back in a headlong kind of repetition that feels like a wheel rolling fast over rough roads.

As a result, even though both tracks are relatively long — “Merry Mountain” lasts for 13 and a half minutes, “Brushy Fork” for just under 11 — you don’t have the opportunity to get bored. Both songs move quickly, definitively, and with purpose. It is hard, especially in “Brushy Fork,” to stop a foot or finger from moving in time. (No one actually plays drums in the band, though I think that everyone contributes to the beat with hands, feet, picking or plunking.) There’s a rawness, a rough, insistent energy to this music that pulls you along, beat by beat, lick by lick. The songs kick like mules. They are, in their way, as aggressive and heedless as anything you’ll hear at a punk club.

Whompyjawed is a peculiar sort of party record, an old-time stomp-fest that incites not the least bit of nostalgia. Jack Rose’s slide work with the Twigs etched their tunes with eerie shadows, a between-the-notes sense of spiritual imminence. Without him, the Twigs seem to live and work and play in the immediate present, making space for their roughhousing, homespun tunes in an unreferential right now. You move with these songs not because they are very accurate replicas of old ones, or because you long for a simpler time, or because people you loved once loved them, too. You move with them because they move, and you can’t help but join in.

By Jennifer Kelly

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