Central Vermont’s Rusty Romance is back with Roots ’n’ Roll, a follow-up to Who Brought the Fun, the 2006 Times Argus “Tammie” award winner for Best Vermont Country Album. While fans of the band might enjoy bits and pieces of this latest effort, disappointing vocal performances largely define it. Those seeking top-notch localvore twang might be better served looking elsewhere within the state’s fertile crescent of Americana.
The band marches through opener “Good to Go” with a modicum of upbeat, if quaint, professional polish. For the most part, it is decent, standard bar-band fare. But the song opens the wound that runs through much of the album. Here and throughout the disc, vocalist Michele Gardner’s delivery is marred by oversinging, which inevitably leads to tone problems. In short, she sounds like a nine-to-fiver moonlighting with a rock band, which, coincidentally, is exactly what “Good to Go” is about.
However, front-person burdens and subsequent missteps do not lie solely with Gardner, who left the band following completion of this recording. Five members of the septet take the lead at various points throughout the disc. Of those, Kevin “Bucky” Brown is far and away the strongest vocalist. His performances on tracks such as the swingin’ “Telecaster Girl,” ramblin’ roadhouse number “Texas Double Eagle Roadhouse Blues” and boogie-infused rocker “Truck Drivers’ Wedding” are pitch perfect. Brown has a fluid, laid-back delivery that infuses each cut with carefree nonchalance. That quality, found in abundance on Who Brought the Fun, is largely lacking on Roots, outside of Brown’s offerings and a rambunctious turn from ace mandolinist “Dangerous” Dan Haley on “I’m a Railroad.”
“Streetwalker and a Shy Girl” is most emblematic of the disc’s vocal follies. The duet between Gardner and guitarist Bill “Rusty” Fraser is a genuine attempt at substantive balladry. Unfortunately, the result is almost comically earnest — think “Over at Frankenstein’s Place,” Brad and Janet’s duet from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Gardner’s guileless performance is exceeded only by Fraser, who is gratingly out of tune throughout, particularly when harmonizing. When the two join to sing the unintentionally ironic line, “Is it time to turn to the TV? Or is it time to hit the off key?” listeners might be reaching to do either.