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From certain people’s perspectives, when they look at the top of the pyramid in independent country/roots they may see Hank Williams III, or maybe Shooter Jennings. But there is a whole other sphere based in and around North Carolina that have The Avett Brothers at the top of the heap. Just like Hank3 and Shooter, the Avetts have made their name in quasi-country, but unlike Hank3 and Shooter, they’ve not been helped by their names. Just like Hank3, the Avetts are wildly influential, spawning some great bands, and some unfortunate doppelgangers (see Mumford & Sons), but they’ve also made it far beyond the Hank3 ceiling, now regularly selling out arenas.
It’s curious how rarely these two sides of the roots world come together, but if you take the Avett’s energy and exploration of emotionalism, mixed with the rawness of underground roots, what you get is the Wichita, KS-based Calamity Cubes. Banjo, guitar, and upright bass, they’re not afraid to bare their naked soul in a song, or come crashing into the mosh pit instruments and all.
They say to make it in music today you need a distinct voice. Well The Calamity Cubes have two of them; the deep, brooding baritone of Brook Blanche, and the whimsical, character-filled sighs of Joey Henry. Bass player Cody Oh! is not afraid to sing one too, or be the solid harmony backing up Brook and Joey. Get them all going at once and it’s something special. Live, it is the energy of The Calamity Cubes that first captures you, but soon you gravitate toward the soul encapsulated in the vocals, and the ponderous nature of the songwriting.
Old World’s Ocean puts The Calamity Cubes’ bevy of talents on glorious display. Excellent songwriting is conveyed through flawless vocal performances and inventive music. The Cubes are mostly a tale of the two songwriters Joey And Brook, with each singing their own compositions, but the album starts off with a very collaborative song “Anchors The Way” where the three men’s voices weave and intertwine.
One of the slight misgivings I’ve had about the Cubes in the past is Joey Henry’s tendency to strum the banjo instead of pick. Outside of of certain ragtime circles, banjo strumming is somewhat unaccepted, but in “Anchors The Way” and other Calamity Cubes songs, Joey shows how the banjo’s unique ring set to an engaging rhythmic pattern can do wonders for the shivers housed along the human spine.
Brook Blanche is credited with the lion share of the songwriting on Old World’s Ocean, and supplies the songs of drinking and heartache. One great thing about The Calamity Cubes is they each display such great character through their music and appearance, and they are so distinct and unique, yet counter-balance each other perfectly. Brook seems a wash of emotions and chemical imbalances that bring his wide, dark, and tall lug to a submission of sways and binges.
Songs like “Rock Chalk” and “Lillybelle” convey a man with little or no control of his delicate side, who’s moaning voice bellows out from the very inner depths of dark human emotions. “Lillybelle” is helped along by an excellent guitar solo by contributor Paul DeCeglie, and marks one of the album’s best tracks along with Brook’s “Empty Bottle” that rivals any country drinking song in depth of songwriting. “Thought I Lost You” is a respite from Brook’s depression, whose genius is in the song’s short length and sweet message.
Joe Henry with his muppet-like hair and disarming warmth draws you in with his whimsy, poetic nature, and his romantic’s heart. His arrangements are more loose, abstract affairs, like musical roller coaster rides. “Bathwater” has a gospel heart, but with a much more progressive, loose approach that’s the perfect vehicle for showcasing Henry’s elevated vocal prowess. Joey Henry closes out the album with the sweet and slyly-wise “Traveling Lovers Lullaby”.
Gospel is one of the building blocks of The Calamity Cubes sound, and makes another appearance in Kody Oh!’s contribution “Salvation”. The other side is represented by Brook Blanch’s skeptical and jaded “Same God”. Strong opinions of politics and religion in music are usually no no’s for me, and this song would fit in that category. But that’s my personal hangup and it would be unfair to say that this song isn’t touched by Brook’s astute songwriting like all the others.
With only three players and no drummer, The Cubes are usually too busy holding down the rhythm to add traditional “solos” to their music. But on Old World’s Ocean they bring in a stable of solid contributors including the aforementioned Paul DeCeglie, and players from another Wichita-based band Carrie Nation & The Speakeasy to help clothe the compositions.
By being unafraid to display their vulnerabilities, yet having an inherent rawness to their music and releasing it through one of the most “hardcore” labels in roots circles in the form of Farmageddon Records, The Calamity Cubes create a unique and important nexus in string-based roots music, and do so while putting out creative, innovative, and entertaining tunes that touch all parts of the musical anatomy.
Two guns up!
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Old World’s Ocean does not have an official release date as of yet, but can be pre-ordered from Farmageddon. It has also been previously made available in limited quantities at XSXSW 5, Farmageddon Fest, and will be available in limited quantities at the upcoming Muddy Roots Festival.
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