Higher ground

By SAM PFEIFLE  |  January 14, 2009

This is especially disappointing when you hear the results of their combined talents. The title and opening track is terrific: It's bluegrassy and authentic, a throwback to old vocal spirituals created by the likes of the Carter Family. Like many of the songs here, it's a triumph-over-adversity tune, with lines like, "Ten million miles across the universe, I drag myself around/Searching for the end of thirst before the weight of sorrow takes me down." Except that sorrow never does seem to win, and that's all the good for us.

"Stickin' with My Baby's Love," the other tune where all three get a songwriting credit, is a steamy, Bonnie Raitt kind of thing: "I like to bring those boys right down to their knees." Bullens's dobro lead here has a huge and expansive sound, like it's the most hollow body ever made. The steamy stuff is a little like catching your parents in the act, but, maybe (just maybe), "it doesn't hurt at all to fantasize."

The recycled stuff works to varying degrees. "The Violin Song," a silly, bluesy tune about disliking violin practice as a kid, may have worked well on Holland's 2006 solo disc Bad Girl Once... as part of a larger body, but here it sounds too much like a piece off the Free to Be...You and Me soundtrack. But "You Plant Your Fields," from Waldman's 2007 solo disc, is a winner, a minor-key rumination like "The Wayfaring Stranger" as done by Doc Watson, as good as any of the rootsy stuff put out by Gillian Welch recently.

It's easy to see why people are rallying to this music. It's real, impressively performed, and easy on the ears. Still, it seems to me the Refugees are younger than their years. I'd like to hear a full album of their songwriting collaborations. If they keep repeating their initial success, I have no doubt that will happen.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached atsam_pfeifle@yahoo.com.

THE REFUGEES | One Longfellow Square, in Portland | January 16

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