The Black Twig Pickers aren’t just appreciators or pastiche artists playing at genre exercises. Their minimal arrangements hew closely to the source material. They are not an alt-country band, and listeners expecting gloss and studio sheen should look elsewhere. Between 2008s excellent debut Hobo Handshake, and last year’s Jack Rose and The Black Twig Pickers, the Virginian trio established themselves as dedicated keepers of Americana’s folk-flame. This year’s Ironto Special favors traditional arrangements and standards over originals, with only two self-penned numbers, “Smoker Wedding March” and “Craig Street Hop.”
Mike Gangloff plays a mean fiddle on rousing opener “Don’t Drink Nothing But Corn,” flushed out by spirited contributions by guitarist Isak Howell and banjo player Nathan Bowles. The jew’s harp makes a welcome appearance on the intro to “Saro o Saro,” while lazy harmonica plays woozily over clawhammer banjo on standout “Dead Man’s Piece,” showcasing the group’s ability to build momentum through repetition. With few exceptions the band sounds most comfortable letting their rusted grooves develop through their instrumentals.
When it makes an appearance, Howell’s voice is gritty, ragged, as on “Lay Ten Dollars Down,” he sounds thoroughly soaked in sour mash. Elsewhere it sounds pocked and rutted, bouncing like an old jalopy over sharply plucked banjo on “Last Payday at Coal Creek.” At times, his vocals strain too hard for dust-bowl authenticity, and go towards distracting theatricality. “Love My Honey I Do” borders on indecipherable. His singing sounds too forced to ever cohere with their gentle, finger picking and mellifluously droning Americana. Even the band member’s shouts seem strangely forced throughout, taking the listener out of the experience. Ironto Special detracts from talented fingers when they open their mouths.
Since The Pickers recorded live, it’s possible that the Ironto Special would translate better with more nuanced production, that their roots-rock enthusiasms undoubtedly translate more spontaneously and jubilantly than they do here. There’s a curiously stilted flatness to the album’s sound, and the individual instruments need the chance to stand out, dust off their coveralls and take their bows. It’s entirely more possible that, especially in genres like theirs more marginalized by popular taste, that the Black Twig Pickers are playing expertly and uncompromisingly, to ears that need time to adjust, and that by persevering, will develop wider audiences.
Gillian Welch – Revival
Iris Dement – Infamous Angel
Norman Blake – Whiskey Before Breakfast