Haymarket Squares: February Album of the Month

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If you stuck Tom Lehrer, Bill Bragg, and Phil Ochs in a bluegrass ensemble you might end up with something like The Haymarket Squares, a quintet that labels its music "punkgrass." The insouciance of punk is evident, though the Squares are funnier, more musically accomplished than most punk bands, and paint from a more diverse melodic palette–some blistering rock, a dollop of Spanish guitar, or a flight into klezmer. The artistic core remains bluegrass, but don't expect formula. The closest they come is the breakdown feel of "Horrible Intentions," but it's a song about how the armed guardians of the US border serve masters who profit from the very fears they manufacture.

That alone should tell you that the Haymarket Squares are a political band–a deliciously retro throwback to the days in which folk music was message music from the left of center, not a narcissistic look-at-me confessional. Like the late Utah Phillips, though, the Squares prefer humor to polemics. "Heaven" is a bluegrass gospel take-down of organized religion with lines such as "There ain't no heaven, got make one here." It's hard not to think of pompous fools like Donald Trump when you hear lyrics in "King Me" such as: "I'm a monarchist, and I'm here to say/I can solve the problems that we face today/If you bend the knee, and give all power to me/I will lead this land to glory, like no other king before me/Bringing back the aristocracy." They even make light of the national Security Administration: "Tell me your secrets, tell me you hopes/What you had for breakfast, your off-color jokes/I am a guy who will listen all day/Your new best friend-I'm the NSA." Even the title is funny: "No Such Agency." Remember the old Phil Ochs song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal?" Check out the band's update, "Part of the Problem."

When they wish, the Haymarket Squares can work up a righteous lather, as in "High demand," when they take on the National Incarceration State," or "Working Reward," a call-it-like-is comment on the war on wage earners: "It's a high-wire act/With the safety net in tatters and a target on your back." And there's a really sharp cover of the old Credence Clearwater anthem "Fortunate Son." Mainly, though, the Haymarket Squares force you to chuckle and contemplate. There's plenty that justifies revolt, but the great causes in "Let's Start a Riot" are ennui and boredom. Even the band name is tongue in cheek. Chicago's Haymarket was the site of a famed 1886 anarchist event, but these guys (Mark Alred, Jayson James, John Luther Norris, Marc Oxborrow, Mark Sunman) are based in Phoenix. True to their nature, their "Gritty City" (which sounds like something from The Pogues) is an anti-love letter to the Valley of the Sun. Or is a for-real love letter? The Haymarket Squares delight in keeping us off-kilter. Call this album witty, wicked, and deceptively weighty. –Rob Weir

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