In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “I’ll be surprised if any other 2016 release surprises me more.”
Who is Al Scorch? I had no idea before writing this review. How did I hear about him and decide to listen to his album Circle Round the Signs? I have absolutely no recollection. Is this question and answer style intro the result of me having no other ideas on how to start this review? You bet.
From its banjo pluckin’ opening seconds, Pennsylvania Turnpike had me excited about this record. This isn’t some ironic, post millennium, Mumford and Sons banjo bullshit. This is the kind of banjo that you need to accompany a ho-down fuelled by the contents of clay jugs with three X’s on the side. An accordion is added to the mix for a slightly more subdued, but still infectiously toe tapping vibe on Lost at Sea, before Everybody Out introduces fiddles for a hillbilly meets Romany sound.
Lonesome Low is a great example of what Circle Round the Signs is making me realise is Scorch’s biggest asset. His songs are clear throwbacks to early and mid 20th century Americana. It’s the sound of riding the rails, of the backwoods, of the Great Depression, of a time long, long gone. But there’s something about his voice that makes sure these songs are never cheap nostalgia or lazy appropriation. There’s a clear, if not easily described, modern feel to all of these songs. Making the sad lament and optimistic twist of Lonesome Low sound so lived in, and so fresh at the same time. It’s an impressive balance.
And just when I thought I had heard the extreme limits of how old timey Scorch could go, while still staying new and vibrant, everything that came before sounds mundane compared to Slipknot. The break neck tempo, the breathless harmonica, a fiddle and Scorch’s banjo at their most frantic. All topped with lyrics like, “Have you ever seen a hangman tie a slip knot?” It’s hokey in the most glorious and reverent way.
With the vast majority of Circle Round the Signs tracks clocking in around the two minute mark, the almost five minutes of Poverty Draft stands out, and it does so for all the right reasons. It’s slow, deliberate and mournful, making it the perfect contrast to the raucous knee slapping that makes up so much of this record. It’s also a great breather before launching into the Celtic energy of album closer, Love After Death.
Before listening to Circle Round the Signs, I never would have thought of the banjo as a particularly versatile instrument. I never would have thought of the banjo as the kind of instrument to build an entire band’s sound around. And I never would have thought the banjo was the kind of instrument likely to surprise me with something new in 2016. But Al Scorch has made me realise that the banjo is an instrument more than capable of the lot. Staying respectfully faithful to his influences, while never lazily relying on them, I’ll be stunned if any other 2016 release surprises me more than Circle Round the Signs.