- OldBoys, Moon Music
(Self-released, digital, vinyl)
Bluegrass fusion efforts can be super embarrassing. Take the Rednex techno remake of "Cotton Eye Joe" or the entire Pickin' On series, which is basically instrumental KIDZ BOP for adults. I'm all about genre bending (I stan Lil Nas X), but when it comes to bluegrass, these amalgamations tend to skew tacky and jokey.
Vermont group OldBoys take a different approach, blending bluegrass, punk and alt-rock stylings in a way that feels like a natural, sincere salute to all three genres. The self-described "Green Mountain punk-grass string band" released its debut album, Moon Music, on August 3.
OldBoys' punk-rock ethos is unmistakable in the lyrics of "Die to Defy": "I was born to break the rules, never gave a damn about no school!" Did the Runaways write this?
The most on-the-nose exclamation of the band's punk and alternative proclivities is its cover of the Nirvana thrasher "Breed." Less of a straightforward cover than a reinterpretation, this version features subdued vocal harmonies, almost creepy in their restraint, as the music bubbles up underneath like a potion in a witch's cauldron.
The instrumentation on the album is more or less that of a traditional string band. Kevin Wright, Justin Park, Julia Wright, Niles Franc and Eric Wright handle slide guitar and lead vocals, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, and cello, respectively. Still, certain elements of the delivery and mixing give OldBoys' sound extra muscle.
Eric Wright's mixing is heavy on the upright bass. The four-string instrument essentially serves as a bass drum and keeps the music from fading into sonic innocuousness, as modern-day string-band music sometimes can. "Cockeyed Suzie" is a prime example of this effect and one of the album's standout tracks.
Expressions of internal struggle and alienation from society, along with themes of vice and personal demons, thread through the songs — as do healthy doses of cynicism and irony.
The album's overarching motifs are best exemplified in "To the Bone" ("Oh, it's painful I know to let a demon go / Gotta starve him to the bone, starve him to the bone") and the traditional sad sack's lament in "Fortune" ("Fortune I had it, fortune I lost it / Fortune I lost it one night when I was drunk").
Like Slim Cessna's Auto Club or local Eric George with his 2018 punk project Song of Love, OldBoys have found a sweet spot at the intersection of roots, punk and alt-rock. Their sound is pretty much guaranteed to banish techno "Cotton Eye Joe" from your brain.
Moon Music is available at oldboysmusic.com.