[This was supposed to be in the May issue of Harp, but Harp went out of business. So, I’m posting it here.]
Demolition String Band
Different Kinds of Love
Hearing a bluegrass song with lyrics about hills and trains is unremarkable. Hearing a bluegrass song about “the hills of Jersey City” and a train that’s probably a subway is remarkable indeed. If the cardinal rule of Americana is sing-about-what-you-know authenticity, then the Demolition String Band certainly scores on that qualification. The Hoboken quartet has strong musical roots in bluegrass traditions – leader Elena Skye studied mandolin with Jethro Burns – but those roots are shot through with plenty of rock ‘n’ roll electricity. Correlations could be drawn to towering roots/punk bands like Lone Justice and X, but Skye’s twang of a voice and the chugging, old-school instrumentation lands these guys firmly on the “roots” side of the equation. Subways and landfills aren’t the sole lyrical territory; there are also the requisite “drinking and thinking about you” lines. But the energetic and full-bodied approach the DSB takes keeps any of it from getting too precious or predictable.
Controversy is not the first tribute to the music of Prince. In this era of every artist imaginable being “honored” with lullabye albums, goth reworkings and symphonic renditions of their works, it would be amazing if there weren’t a dozen such albums taking on the man’s prodigious output. However, while Controversy isn’t the first Prince tribute disc, it’s also not the first Prince tribute disc to feature the versions contained within. Back in 2002, XL released a comp that featured the likes of Broadway Project, 7 Hurtz, Hefner and Blue States reworking a well-curated selection of Prince cuts. That disc emphatically restated the out-there electronics, odd phrasings and general stylistic derring-do that has always been a hallmark of Prince’s music. And, most of the songs on that disc re-appear on Controversy. And, unsurprisingly, those cuts stand out as highlights. 7 Hurtz (with Peaches) turn “Sexy Dancer” into an electroclash Vanity 6 number, Hefner makes “Controversy” into a mellow bit of ambience and the version of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” dialed up by the Broadway Project (with Jeb Loy Nichols) is a fantastic bit of electro-symphonic bombast. Yet, while Controversy may lose a few points on the originality front (the much-revered D’Angelo version of “She’s Always In My Hair” starts the disc off), the numbers not found on its predecessor – most notably the sparse and emotional takes on “Purple Rain” (by Stina Nordenstam) and “Condition of the Heart” (by Susanna & the Magical Orchestra) – are worth the price of admission … and repetition.
Finally appeared May 8, 2008 in Reax.