There’s always been a general consensus that an album, especially a debut album, should give a balanced representation of what kind of music a band plays. On this self-titled CD, Bourbon Barrel Congress, a quintet from central Virginia, is either remarkably diverse or else hasn’t quite made up its collective mind as to what it wants to be when it grows up.
For my money, the most impressive part is when the group settles in behind the songwriting and voice of guitarist Ethan Hawkins. (At least I assume that it’s his voice on these tracks, since the album singing credits aren’t broken down by track.) On “Flattered Am I,” “Mr. Wayne,” and “Oh The Rain,” his wispy tenor, with quirky touches of phrasing and expression that seem to be influenced by the Punch Brothers, leads the BBC through off-kilter imagery and some very lovely melodic touches.
Fiddler Rene DeVito steps out as composer of the CD’s three instrumentals, “Set Tasers To Horses,” “451,” and “Rockingham,” the latter co-written with Hawkins (and the former with a little touch of “Cherokee Shuffle”/“Lost Indian.”) All are solid and straightforward fiddle tunes giving Hawkins, DeVito, and banjoist John Spangler a chance to stretch in ways that are melodic and nicely “in the pocket.” Michael Emerson adds his harmonica to the tunes and songs, ending up more as a textural element than as a strong tuneful feature.
The album’s opening track, “Boatin’ Up Sandy,” is a nice treatment of a traditional number and feels like the strongest sample of the band playing as a bluegrass ensemble with an old-time edge. The collective energy, and perhaps originality, of the Bourbon Barrel Congress seems to take a step backward on Hawkins’ “Wife Of A Politician’s Son,” which draws on some murder ballad conventions, a cover of the Felice Brothers’ “Whiskey In My Whiskey,” and an unremarkable version of Hot Rize’s “Nellie Kane.”
The most encouraging indicator of this debut album is that the best parts of it are the most original. While the BBC may never be an easy band to categorize, this CD gives a lot of hope that if they cultivate the unique nature of their collective voice and continue to gel as a unit, they’ll continue to make interesting and distinctive recordings. (Bourbon Barrel Congress, 263 Fillmore St., Staunton, VA 24401, www.bourbonbarrelcongress.com.)HK