Click to hear: “Diamond Joe“
Having a committed group of roots-folk players is a must for any New England town worth its salt. Breath easy, Portland. On their second release, Coal Creek, the foot-stomping Mutineers have conifers state-wide swinging their boughs in celebration of music made without polluting electricity’s gaudy accents. This is an album of gimmick-free craftsmanship, the work of gifted musicians together in a room tactfully producing music that rarely gets in its own way.
Leading the way is honest Stuart MacDonald, who, for better and worse, is not a risk-taker as a vocalist. His voice is sweet and forgettable, submitting respectfully to the stories he sings and his fellow musicians. Though there’s room for more personality here, the songwriting is tantalizingly good.
The most poignant track, amidst a host of fair maiden–laden traditionals, is MacDonald’s own “Coal Creek.” With the timely, ominous refrain, “Pay day, pay day, pay day, lord, lord / Pay day at Coal Creek no more,” the title track resonates with the growing legions of unemployed folks everywhere.
Economic woes notwithstanding, The Mutineers embrace their role as party-starters, and prove strongest when doling out mirth in hearty portions. The album’s best track, “Diamond Joe,” rides high on Rod Pervier’s jovial, Cash-worthy bass line while Jeff Trippe’s finger-lickin’ banjo propels each merry verse forward. Trippe is a versatile dynamo on this record, fluent on guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle, adding whichever timbre is most suited to each track. By the time the buoyant, breezy original “Whiskey Road” drops toward the end of the set, it’s clear that when these guys get going, knees are gettin’ slapped, skirts are a’curtsyin’ and bodies are blissfully spinning free from worldly cares.
This collection has a few miscues. “Cocaine Blues,” for all its juicy subject matter, is rendered in disappointingly bland fashion. Opting for a slower arrangement, MacDonald and the boys recall the lifelessness of the Dylan and the Dead sessions — a straight reading without any of the manic irony the lyrics aim to conjure. “Barbara Allen” is ultimately touching for the most patient listener, but, clocking in at 6:16, it’s too long by half and functions best as a sedative.
Though the ballads can lag, a close listen to Coal Creek reveals a selfless group of songsmiths that Mainers can proudly lay claim to. Here’s hoping The Mutineers light up many a room this year. In these dismal times, a soaring mandolin line can be just the thing to cut the gloom.
— Mike Olcott
Stuart MacDonald plays a solo gig on Fri., March 13, at Slainte, 24 Preble St., Portland, at 9 p.m. Free (21+). 828-0900. For more on the band, visit themutineers.com.