Indie and alternative don't always have to mean young, torn-jean bands praying at the twin altars of the Velvet Underground and The Ramones.
By DAVID BRINN
THE HOLMES BROTHERS
State of Grace
Indie and alternative don't always have to mean young, torn-jean bands praying at the twin altars of the Velvet Underground and The Ramones. Sometimes the most traditional music in the world takes on a most radical setting, especially when placed against the conformist mass radio programming of today. Take the cases of The Holmes Brothers and Josh Ritter. They're unlikely to be confused for indie pop heroes, but in the Holmes Brothers' timeless rootsy Americana and Ritter's traditional folk pop with an edge, the two artists share a common bond with the alternative crowd by creating music that isn't usually heard by the wide masses, but should be.
The Holmes Brothers (Sherman on bass, Wendell on guitar and piano, and Popsy Dixon on drums - and all on exquisite vocals and harmonies) are juke joint vets that have spent decades perfecting their gospel-invoked blend of R&B, soul and country.
In the last few years, they've started to gain national recognition in the US thanks to some sparkling albums - of which the newly released State of Grace just might the pinnacle.
Only The Band comes to mind for comparison for The Holmes Brothers' ability to synthesize so many rural American styles and create amazing rough hewn harmonies that sound like a whiskey-drenched revival. Therefore it's fitting that Levon Helm, along with his daughter Amy, makes guest appearances on State of Grace providing vocals, mandolin and percussion on two tracks.
But it's the band members themselves who are the true stars here. Rather than simply do cover versions, The Holmes Brothers reinterpret classic material and make them something completely new. How they've taken Elvis Costello's and Nick Lowe's new wave landmark "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding" and Cheap Trick's power pop anthem "I Want You To Want Me" and rebuilt them from the inside out into a Staples Family-like stately hymn, and a heart-wrenching country ballad with three part harmony respectively, has to be heard to be believed.
Their own tunes are not far behind - with the rocking "Gasoline Drawers" and "Standing in the need of Love" focusing on maintaining the right groove, something this band seems to have no trouble doing. But it's back to their reinterpretations - especially Lyle Lovett's childlike acoustic "If I Had a Boat" and the closing gospel "God Will" which cement The Holmes Brothers well-deserved reputation as the best reinventers of songs anywhere. They really do perform like they're in a state of grace.
The Animal Years
Josh Ritter is a literate singer songwriter with enough of the "no depression" alt-country renegade in him to keep things very interesting.
The Animal Years, the Idaho native's third release, takes the traditional 'folkie' persona and dresses it up with intense narratives on war, loss and faith embellished by some subtle rock instrumentation.
Ritter's voice - described by one critic as Springsteen without the hoarseness or a meat-eating James Taylor - is earnest and likeable. But the music is rawer and sketchy than either of those superstars would feel comfortable with - especially the 10-minute epic two chord mini-novel "Thin Blue Flame" which sounds closer to sonic build ups of Wilco and Jeff Tweedy.
It may feel uncomfortably close to the edge for what is ostensibly a melodic singer/songwriter album, but The Animal Years touches exactly the right nerves needed to make the listener sit up and take notice of a formidable talent.
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