REVIEW: The Boggs: We Are the Boggs We Are
The Boggs: We Are the Boggs We are [Arena Rock, 2001]
Three words? That oldtime feeling.
When writing about the Boggs' debut album, I might first discuss the rumpled vintage clothing of the sextet on the CD cover, making witty asides about their bedhead indie-rock haircuts or the magazine being read by the particularly bushy-faced one in the corner. I might dwell on the pedigree of the band's label - Arena Rock - which is home to the emo-chic Gloria Record. I might try to draw a line between the Boggs and their double-g cousins, the baffling Shaggs. I might do any of these things. But I won't. The Boggs shouldn't be addressed in this straightforward fashion: you see, the band itself is not straightforward. Though all dressed up in the trappings of the indie scene, they are not playing indie rock. There's nary a smirk to be heard on the record. Nope, what we've got here is bluegrass - you heard me, bluegrass - at its most mussed-up, moving and off-kilter.
We Are the Boggs We Are opens with feverish mandolin strumming and a crushed-tin-can backfence stomp. "Whiskey and Rye" is energized, determined and completely - deliciously - blurred. The sounds of snare and guitar fuzz together with Jason Friedman's grumbled, indecipherable vocals. "Whiskey bay-beh, whiskey rye, aoo-seh roooawl, awaskee July." You said it, my brother. Where the Boggs aren't recreating the muddy jams of bonfire evenings, they're delivering quiet, folky mumbles - numbers like "On North Wood Ground" and the lovely "Plant me a Rose", which recall Alan Lomax's recordings of rural blues musicians more than they do Bill Monroe. Six instrumental tracks round out the disc with displays of instrumental proficiency and authentic bluegrass interest. This isn't Modest Mouse moonlighting as an O Brother cover-band: this is the real deal, sugar, under a Kentucky moon. At the same time however, the Boggs aren't retooling Dolly Parton classics; what we have here is indie bluegrass, it's music for the kids, it's a drunken soundtrack for a counterculture doe-see-doe. It's like having your ears washed out with pumice, salt and lemon-grass.
Friedman, along with Aaron Romanello and engineer Chris Zane, showcase the band using several different aesthetics. While "Over the Way" and "A Direction Take" come across with crisp, toe-tapping production-values, "Emily, O Emily" and "Beside the Windowsill" sound like Friday afternoon onetrack recordings, and then songs such as the cockle-warming, off-key "We Shall Meet Again" play out like barn-dance choir practices. The different atmospheres give the disc a depth it would otherwise miss - a spectrum of emotions are drawn out of the music, a breadth of imagery. Everywhere there's a similar blend of slide guitar, mandolin, banjo, accordion... and yet there's a true variety to the landscape the Boggs evoke. As one track fades muddily into the next, one senses a progression: kids grow up, grow old, nurse mugs of moonshine and watch hayfields in the sunset. These are oldstyle songs, sure, but those oldstyle feelings are no more outdated than the stomp of a leathed boot or the riotous cry of a musician moved.