Nu-Blu Album Preachy But Solid Bluegrass

Nail by Nail
Pine Castle Holdings 1181
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At a recent conference I attended a session on marketing and music. In a chat with one of the presenters I said that I had just gotten a CD that purported to be a “Christian bluegrass” album. He laughed and queried, “Aren’t all bluegrass albums Christian?” He wasn’t serious, but it’s certainly true that mountain gospel has long been a staple for bluegrass vocalists. So how is Nail by Nail different from any other bluegrass record? Let’s start with what isn’t different. The North Carolina-based ensemble Nu-Blu features all the expected instrumentation: guitar (Daniel Routh), bass (Daniel’s wife Carolyn), banjo (Levi Austin), mandolin (Austin Koerner), and fiddle (Greg Luck). Carolyn Routh handles lead vocals and everyone except Luck jumps in to produce signature three-part harmonies. Songs feature instrumental breakouts, usually a sequence of flat-picked guitar, banjo runs, and fancy mando and fiddle bowing. Occasionally a soulful slap bass punctuates the procession before a quick burst of notes bridges back to the melody and vocals. So far, so standard….

But make no mistake: Nu-Blu also has a preachy side that comes through in the selection of some pretty overt lyrics. (Lest there’s any mistake, notes on the back of the album make it clear that Nu-Blu sees this recording as musical testimony.) This seven-track CD presents Jesus as crucified and savior of humankind. Let your tolerance for preaching guide your decision of whether or not to check out Nu-Blu. A reason why you might wish to do so: this is a very good band. They may lay it on a bit heavy at times, but they are perennial nominees in the category of bluegrass band of the year in a state that knows bluegrass. Some of the testimony is indeed on the heavy side—which is why my favorite track was the cover of Tim Stafford’s more subtle “Where Did You Get that Water?”—but there’s not a thing pushy about the band’s top drawer musicianship. And if you want to know the difference between bluegrass gospel and bluegrass gospel, this one will guide you.—Rob Weir

Click here to hear "Hammer on the Nails."


Boxing Day Gifts for Decision (and Non-Decision) Makers

Santa's not the only one who should be kicked out on 12/26! 

In many places where Christmas is observed, the day itself is for family and quiet contemplation. (Wow! What a bizarre idea, huh?) Present exchanges, usually modest ones given in small numbers (shocking!), actually take place on December 26, Boxing Day. (In the USA, we return gifts on Boxing Day.) So here’s my Grinch list of Boxing Day gifts for decision- and non-decision-makers (broadly defined).

To Egypt: A military coup. It’s the only thing that has a prayer of saving the nation from civil war, religious jihad, and regional war. The Muslim Brotherhood has railroaded through a new constitution that will, if left unchecked, impose sharia law on the nation and take it back to the 14th century. It will, of course, blame Israel for anything that goes wrong and seek to launch a holy war against it. Ordinary Egyptians would be much better off under a junta.

To all doe-eyed liberals who actually believed in Arab Spring: Huge slices of humble pie and forced feedings of it. Maybe if they get sick enough, reality will dawn. Who knew Arab Spring would not bring democracy to Yemen or Egypt? Lots of us, actually! In fact, anyone who actually knows the difference between fairy tales and social reality anticipated this.

To the NRA:  Copies of Mein Kampf and 10% off coupons for jackboots and brown shirts. This is how fascism begins–a bully group of well-armed thugs decides that their self-interest matters more than the well being of the masses. Fear is used to cow the populace into believing that only the thugs can save them from the savagery that the thugs themselves unleashed. The NRA at least ought to learn their tactics from a master.

To the masses: The secret ballot and instructions on how to use it to vote down thugs, fear-mongers, and assorted bullies. Also an instruction manual on pressure politics within putative democratic societies. Caveat: You actually have to use the vote and citizen lobbying power, not serenely assume that there is magic in the mere possession of them.

To the average taxpayer: A big old increase in federal levies. Go on–blame Obama. You know you want to. But you can really thank the Tea Party, which would rather make you guys pay through the nose than to tell the 1% that they actually have to pay anything substantial for the privilege of living in a capitalist society. (Of course, you might just want to use the ballot and pressure politics to fight this. See above.)

To Obama: A spine. You’ve been reelected Big Guy, so take charge. Call out the fascists and the greedy. Go ahead–impugn their patriotism and call them what they are: disloyal, self-centered, and greedy. And while you’re at it, the word “treason” is defined as “an attempt or conspiracy to overthrow or war against the government,” which is exactly what a lot of the hard right has advocated. They’re not even subtle about it. Check out the statements on violently overthrowing the government by Texan secessionists and Mississippi Tea Party leader Roy Nicholson. Order their arrests, Big Guy. Put aside Mr. Compassionate and find your inner LBJ. Kick some butt, starting with the anti-government crowd. When we go over the Fiscal Cliff, use executive powers to punish the districts of anti-government Congressmen. And remind Americans regularly why they are paying higher taxes.

To the Founding Fathers: A Rest in Peace Bill. The new law asserts that: (a) the founders were mortals, not infallible gods, (b) they were politicians skilled in ambiguous doublespeak long before the term was invented, (c) they were not clairvoyants able to foresee all future implications of the documents they wrote, and (d) they consisted of many non-denominational and non-religious individuals who would be repelled by the very idea of mixing politics and doctrine.

To politicians present and future: A current calendar and the particulars of the subsection of the Founding Fathers Rest in Peace Law. This section requires that “All members of Congress must, upon taking office, sign an affidavit stipulating that they have no idea what the founders really intended. Moreover, members of Congress are charged with making sound policy for the current time period, not 1783. No member of Congress can support measures to restore slavery, property requirements for voting, male supremacy, or repeal of the 16th Amendment.” 

And, just to lighten the mood a bit, some sports gifts:

To the Pittsburgh Pirates: A 21st consecutive year of losing baseball. Any team that would give away a top closer (Joel Hanrahan) to the Red Sox for a bust minor league pitcher (Stolmy Pimentel? Who the hell names a kid Stolmy?) and a minor leaguer (James Sand) who was a trade toss-in from another organization, simply doesn’t deserve to win.

To the Boston Celtics: A GPS pinned with the location of the Fountain of Youth, or a March dump-salaries trading session. Guess which one is more likely for this broken-down plow horse of a team?

To the National Hockey League: The demise of Gary Bettman. But which is more likely, an outbreak of democracy in the Middle East or a contagion of sanity in professional hockey? I wouldn’t bet a bag of pucks on either.    


Le Vent du Nord's Fabulous Holiday Gift

Tromper le Temps
Borealis 214
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Reviewers are supposed to be impartial, but I can’t help myself: Le Vent du Nord is my favorite Québeçois band and has been for quite some time. We often (rightly) associate music from La Belle Province as spirited, but sometimes ragged–appropriate for the dance and party niche it fills so lustily. Le Vent du Nord is spirited all right, but it is also so accomplished that the music is as at-home in a recital hall as in a Gatineau kitchen.

To experience just how wonderful this album is, go to track ten, “Le Diable et le Fermier.” It’s Nicholas Boulerice’s entry into an ever-expanding genre of songs about commoners–in this case a farmer–who outsmart the Devil. Much of it is just thundering feet, a cappella call-and-response vocals, and instrumental drone, but you don’t need much with four singers whose harmonies are tighter than an elephant’s yoga pants. Though the song is new, it’s in synch with the throwback feel of others on the album, some of which are gleaned from 18th and 19th century songbooks, and some of which commemorate past events. In the latter category place “Lettre á Durham,” the quartet’s solemn-yet-hopeful take on an infamous British report on how to subdue Francophone rebels and their culture (and their limited success in so doing). Le vent du Nord can certainly burn the dance boards, as we hear in Olivier Demers’ frothy fiddle work on “Toujours Amant,” and in a reel titled “Le Winnebago” (named for an unfortunate vehicle rental) in which the fiddle mixes with bouzouki (Simon Beaudry), guitar (Demers), and accordion and mouth harp (Réjean Brunet). Or how some real froth–a song inspired by being stranded (poor babies!) in the famed Belgian brewing town of Chimay? And what better way to flavor it than with Boulerice cranking out a spirited hurdy-gurdy melody? You get a bit of everything on this album, including “La Soirée du Hockey,” which began life as a small protest against Canada’s decision to discontinue French-language broadcasts of “Hockey Night in Canada,” but which now has an added level of poignancy given the NHL lockout. There are also seasonal songs, songs with a bluesy feel, and songs about waiting for love, a mother’s love, and even that rarest of things in folk music–requited love (“Le Souhait”). 

Let’s just crown these guys the Kings of Québeçois music and be done with it. Thus far in the 21st century, no other band comes close to their track record of sustained excellence. Call this one un cadeau glorieux for the holidays.--Rob Weir