MODERN STRINGDOM Coloradas.
I was really digging the brand of alt-country Roy Davis was dishing on 2010's We Are a Lightning Bolt, all kinds of melancholy and down in the mouth and drenched in warm electric guitars. But Davis wasn't. Or maybe not enough other people were. Maybe we'll hear it again some time in the future. Maybe three albums of that kind of thing were enough.
For the time being, we have the Coloradas, what you might call a bluegrass or modern string-band outfit, co-created by Davis and long-time collaborator Bernie Nye (he played bass with Pete Kilpatrick for a while, too) and toting a nifty 12-song debut album full of melancholy and down-in-the-mouth songs that don't happen to employ instruments you need to plug in. The Coloradas do employ some fine musicians on the album, though, including suddenly ubiquitous mandolin player Joe Walsh (Gibson Brothers, Stowaways, solo stuff, lots of guest spots lately), his Stowaway mate Steve Roy on stand-up bass and fiddle, and Amanda Kowalski (of the Boston-based all-gal bluegrassers Della Mae) on some stand-up bass of her own.
Like the best of Slaid Cleaves's stuff, Davis has a way of writing songs about bastards and genuinely bad people, songs often full of self-loathing and doing bad things, that are almost impossible not to like. Does this work just about as well in string-band form as it did in Uncle Tupelo-style alt-country? Pretty much. The Coloradas do an especially good job of crafting material that fits the music, but don't try to pretend they spend all their time picking in the Blue Ridge Mountains and listening to player pianos.
I'd like to hear some of these tunes recorded slightly differently, though, to better form my opinion. Nye and Davis handled engineering duties themselves, and I guess I understand the raw sound they're going for, but sometimes it just sounds hollow. It's really hard to hear the backing vocals most of the time. There's an immediacy that's undeniable, like they're playing in the next room over — right now — but I often felt myself wishing I were in the same room with them.
Maybe I'm just desperate to see them live so I can watch Davis deliver a line like, "your fucked up pills and fever dreams can't hide the doll you used to be when you'd sing Loretta Lynn." That's from "Our Disguises," where Davis inexplicably sounds like he's having a lot of fun (the opening "Misery" also has the kind of infectious energy that made the recent Tricky Britches album good) in front of a driving thump from the bass and Walsh breaks that are downright manic."This Isn't Love, Natalie," with a sound a lot like Old and in the Way's "Midnight Moonlight," might just break your heart, a story of going through all the clichéd motions for all the right reasons right up to the point where you're either all-in or all-out. Davis's choice? "And I should have told you darlin' how the dark gets in/But instead when you handed me your key, I said, 'Thanks a million'/and I started to think about how short this life can be." Then he started running.
"Down on My Knees" is a waltz that's full of unsavory characters, with Davis piling on lyrics like the Avett Brothers like to do. I got caught on: "Hannah can smile because all the sand down inside her is turning to glass/And we are an engine that burns petroleum gas."