Deep Chatham plays bluegrass that’s both sweet and rough, both timeless and weirdly modern. The band (Jeff Loops, Julian Sikes and Matt Heckler) play the licks the way they should be — fast, unaffected, each string singing clear. But there’s also a recklessness that speaks to influences other than a straight diet of roots music.
And then there are their voices. The three do the bluegrass harmonies thing, but in a very unbluegrass way. Though they each have different vocal strengths (Sikes can hit some lovely high notes; Loops maintains a rough-hewn baritone), there’s an interesting edge. The lead is allowed plenty of the hoarse smoke-and-whiskey tone that’s more often associated with Tom Waits then, say, Del McCoury. In fact, it would be hard to say, between Sikes and Loops, whose voice is more intriguing, more devastating, more nuances, more full of ache and mystery.
Watch the band perform a medley on Busk Break here:
At 13 tracks, Deep Chatham’s Words from the Well is a bluegrass album mainly in that it uses bluegrass instrumentation as a canvas for the band’s darkly beautiful songwriting. Songs like “Rude Beauty” and “Familia De Muerta” reveal complex story telling. These are stories conveyed through shades of understanding paired with a deep sense of mystery. The way the strings are layered, the way the bass lurks low in the background and the banjo add texture, sets a sonic mood — a template upon which the dream of these songs unfolds. “It’s good to know when you’re shit out of luck, you’ll be living off me, you’ll be getting my love,” goes “Familia,” a darkly romantic number.
“Paradise” is a bit more straightforward, all snarling engine and controlled rage. “Lady Of Our Hills” is also fueled by a palpably menacing pulse. The bass glowers, the fiddle whinnies and the mandolin jangles at double speed.
While Deep Chatham does right by a fierce song, it’s possible that where they really excel is on the softer songs. “Don’t Let Me Down” is a tender, heart-on-sleeve, near love song. Okay, it might be a war song. It might be a political statement. But my god, the way the fiddle comes in, a breeze seems to sweep across a summer night and a sky scattered with fireflies and whether the singer is disparaging the meaningless of combat or shyly asking his sweetheart to love him, well, anyone who could deny him would have to have a heart of stone. And “Carolina Rain” — there, the mandolin and guitar dance like a spring shower and the rhythmic tripping of words spills easy.
“Alone in The Night” is a standout for its softer touch and jazz turns. The vocals, no less ragged but pitch-perfect in their emotive conviction, hit surprising minor notes. “The Cursed” moves even farther into the jazz-influenced, Gypsy-flavored territory. The song slinks and weaves, reptilian and murderous, its intensity building until, around the halfway point (at almost six minutes, this is the album’s longest track), the songs changes time signatures and the picture changes. Still dark, but more train-hopping country-noir than caravans and fortune telling.
“Madeline” is also a standout. It melds all of the band’s best elements — musicianship, harmonies and storytelling, with a goosebump-inducing sense of suspense. “Madeline, dance the devil through the night,” the track implores. If Tim Burton ever sets one of his eerie-gothic films in Appalachia, this song better be on the soundtrack.
Watch a video for “Madeline” here:
Band photo by Amanda Cabanillas.