Plot/Scheme by Jonathan Scales
The mention of steel drums in most circles elicits thoughts of umbrella-topped danger drinks and portly men stuffed inside batik shirts. Asheville musician Jonathan Scales quells these unfair stereotypes by taking his Caribbean-born instrument on a globe-trotting spree through jazz, funk, reggae, Latin and even bluegrass.
Scales’ sophomore release, Plot/Scheme, reveals a steel drummer who understands the musical world with scholarly precision. The steel sparkles throughout the album, but Scales’ compositions allow for the other A List studio performers to claim equal footing.
The backbone of the “captured” orchestra rides on drumming deity Jeff Sipe (ARU, Leftover Salmon), who lends sticks to seven cuts. Sax colossus Jeff Coffin (Béla Fleck) arrest the ears on “Old Jailhouse,” while Stephanie Morgan’s (stephaniesid) sultry wails on the political “Baghdad Bomb Rock” lend awareness without offering the heavy hand. Even hidden track “Osmosis” fares well, thanks to its spiral of spoken-word madness.
A must for those who desire a Caribbean floater with their world-music concoctions.
Catch Jonathan Scales at The Rocket Club (opening for Sol Driven Train) on Saturday, Dec. 20. Info: 505-2494.
Self-titled disc by Dehlia Low
Destitute of musical soul, English hymns inspire sleepy time in pews. Occasionally, cherubic voices rescue the song structure from monotone hell. Anya Hinkle (vocals, fiddle), of Asheville bluegrass quartet Dehlia Low, resuscitates Isaac Watts’ 300-year-old standard, “When I Can Read My Title Clear,” on the band’s self-titled debut album. Mournfully optimistic, Hinkle’s lonesome voice (a marriage between Hazel Dickens and Shannon Whitworth) defies the usual stale surroundings of hymnal stagnation.
The album builds up to Watts’ tune (the next-to-last song), with valleys and vistas throughout. The lead-off track, “Yellow Mountain” (penned by Hinkle) recalls the chestnut blight’s decimation of the region’s golden chestnut trees. Hinkle’s voice marries seamlessly with fellow femme Stacy Claude (vocals, guitar) on the tune. This harmonious intertwining resides on numerous numbers, buoying the whole album.
Not all the songs are reserved for Sunday wine sipping. Heel-kickers like the chugging instrumental, “Caught By a Train” (written by Dobro man Aaron Ballance), make the ears pine for Dehlia Low’s live shows.
Dehlia Low plays New Year’s Eve at White Horse Black Mountain. Info: 669-0816.
Heroes and Heretics by Town Mountain
Town Mountain’s second release, Heroes and Heretics, gives listeners a world of whiskey, outlaws, doe-eyed lasses and elusive hollers. Traveling at breakneck speed, the quintet effectively forges an unholy union—allowing bluegrass to bed down with the primal sway of punk. Each instrument bears fangs while singer Robert Greer growls his way through original songs about corporate malfeasance (“Ruination Line”), aching for Appalachia (“Leavin’ Montana”), and giving the finger to unrequited love (“Shame on You”).
When the album does slow down, it meets with mixed results. The band’s cover of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” takes away the haunt and sounds like someone nervously reading a poem. However, Townes Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ On Raton” and Jay Farrar’s “Windfall” keep their original grace.
Greer’s star shines bright, but the rest of the band shares the luminescence. Jesse Langlais (banjo, vocals) pens a majority of the lyrics while Annie Staninec’s fiddle and Phil Barker’s mandolin race through numbers as if the checkered flag were only meant for them.
Heroes matures greatly from Town Mountain’s timid debut, showing a band ready for ripping.
Town Mountain plays The Flat Rock Wine Shoppe’s Back Room on Thursday, Jan. 22.
Self-titled disc by Rooster Scratch
Viva the bar band: These pupils of alcohol-drenched anthems, grinding organs, and yelping guitars found their weekend theater with the inception of hazardously dimmed barrooms.
Asheville’s Rooster Scratch (think Tom Petty) carries on the tradition of chugging garage rock complete with songs focused on society’s fringe. The quartet’s self-titled album (unsigned to date) works well as a promotional piece for potential gigs. However, the studio polish reveals underlying scuffs. While the elements exist—talented musicians in touch with their inner rock ‘n’ roll—Todd Jones’ (vocals, guitar) front-man delivery occasionally seems at odds with the rocking background.
Experience should cure these minor kinks as Jones learns more about his craft and backing landscapes. Winners include “Barn” (a blues soaker reminiscent of The Faces’ “Around the Plynth”), and the harmonica haunt of “One Step”. However, “Whiffle Ball” makes the fast-forward button look sexy.
Restructuring may solve some issues. According to the band’s MySpace page, Jones recently went solo while the band undergoes an overhaul. I hope a fresh strut will emerge, giving the Rooster plenty of bars for a brood.
Look for info on the Rooster Scratch Spring 2009 tour at www.myspace.com/roosterscratch.