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The Howling Kettles - The Parlor is Pleasant on Sunday Night

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Artist: The Howling Kettles

Album: The Parlor is Pleasant on Sunday Night

Label: self-released

Review date: Jan. 9, 2013

The Howling Kettles - “Skip To My Lou”

When I reviewed Sam Moss’s Neighbors last year, I was struck by how solitary it was, how it explored the lonely, desolate side of the Americana experience in stark, slow-tempo combinations of voice and banjo (and a little guitar). The Howling Kettles, Moss’ string band collaboration with Jackson Emmer, is completely different: giddily communicative, celebratory, and wildly, rhythmically physical.

Moss, who spent the summer at the MacDowell Colony, plays guitar, banjo, violin and sings. Emmer kicks in banjo, mandolin and also sings. Sometimes they sing together in rough, strident harmony; other times, one or the other strikes out on his own. Moss’s voice is higher and purer. Emmer’s has more sand in it, a bit of yelp and yodel in the high notes. They sing without artifice or embellishment, gleefully (even the sad songs, like “Badly Bent,” seem to swallow a grin), in a rough-housing rush.

The material is mostly traditional, some of it extremely familiar. The children’s song “Skip to My Lou” opens the disc, a mad ramble of scratchy strumming and radiant scrabbles of mandolin. Yet, while the Wiggles and others have turned this song saccharine, Moss and Emmer scrape off the sugar, revealing the tough, unconventional sinews that hold it together. “Hesitation Blues,” another much-covered melody (Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, etc., etc.), has a sharp, ragged swagger, guitar chords slashing and stopping, banjo cavorting maniacally over its cake-walking rhythms. Even “St. James Infirmary,” a blues chestnut available in a million different interpretations, has a taut simplicity, a coiled, barely suppressed energy that justifies a fresh performance.

A couple of times, Moss and Emmer slip the leash a little with their own, very traditionally-rooted originals. “All the Way Left” is maybe the most intense and manic of these tunes, its mandolin and guitar ramped to punk speed and prone (the mandolin at least) to lavish flights of fancy. The disc closer, “Rock That Cradle,” allows these two instruments similar freedom, cutting loose near the end in a kind of duel of stringed instruments. It’s a song that communicates exactly how much these two enjoy playing together, working within time-worn structures but able to, every once in a while, break through them. You can hear Moss and Emmer after the song ends, speculating on whether this music will ever be released and wondering if they were playing too loud. They don’t sound like they care all that much about either question, and that says a lot about the record’s charm.

By Jennifer Kelly

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