[BLUEGRASS] A couple days camping in the sticks—surrounded by banjos, mandolins, weed smoke and nu-hippie family units—can change a person. So, after this year's Pickathon festival, I have an insatiable thirst for bluegrass.
Don't get me wrong; I still kind of hate the shit. It seems to me that most modern practitioners of the form are either too squeaky-clean and reverent to inject real feeling into their songs or so misguidedly modern they rely on hip-hop covers and cell-phone jokes to find an in with the kids. So when Wy'East—a local quartet made up of guitarist Matthew Bean, mandolinist Nathaniel Daniel, banjo player Billy Failing and bassist Gordon Keepers—pulls off bluegrass that sounds effortlessly modern and natural on its debut self-titled EP, I've got to applaud the band more than your average local indie-rock success.
At the heart of that success is the band's resistance to formulaic bluegrass clichés: Sure, Bean's voice has its twang and there are at least a couple train references in the songs, but for the most part these are just heartfelt songs that happen to flow well with lightning-fast banjo picking and vocal harmonies. Opener "Long Gone" sounds like one of Pete Krebs' road-weary pop songs (in part because of some deft electric guitar playing by Gabe Rodriguez); "Natural," despite its jam-funk breakdowns, is legitimately funny in its confessional sleaze; and "Killing Time in E Major" revels in held-notes and cooking, intertwining licks from all four instruments. These are fun, unpretentious bluegrass songs that are fearless in confronting both the past and the future.
[PORTLAND POP PERFECTION] One of the great lost—ahem—gems of Portland music history has finally been recovered. Cajun Gems' 2001 disc, Richard Byrd at Little America, is nothing short of a basement masterpiece that deserves a place next to Elliott Smith's Roman Candle, Bugskull's Phantasies and Senseitions and the Thermals' More Parts Per Million on the Great Wall of Lo-Fi Portland Musical Achievements. Yes, it's that good.
Despite the shabby resources used to build them, these songs are constructed the way cathedrals are: with arches and spirals; intended to last forever, serve tribute to some higher power and feel just a bit humbling and ridiculous. The Gems—a side project of the Joggers' Ben Whitesides and Darrell Bourque—are masterful at the practice. Byrd's opener, "Bless This Snack," starts off with an easy roadhouse twang and goes long from there—like "Freebird" reinterpreted by math-obsessed autistic teens. "Japanese Banjo" is Malkmus-esque in its ability to break hearts through utter lyrical nonsense: Though it clocks in under two minutes, the choral blasts at the end explode so beautifully out of the cluttered verses that it's impossible not to be moved. "Forest Park" mixes raw, old-Portland minor chords with melodic, mathy bridges that seem less written than summoned from the mossy corners of the park itself.
The idea of remastering this disc seems almost sacrilegious, as its crunchy, squashed fidelity is almost as integral to the project as its quizzical lyrics and finger-picked guitar lines. But Rob Oberdorfer took lots of care in his update—cranking and clarifying Whitesides' vocals and widening the stereo channels without losing the dirty, near-perfect heart of the project.
Wy'East plays Goodfoot on Thursday, Nov. 4, with Four on the Floor. 9 pm. $6. 21+. Cajun Gems'
is out now, digitally, from Partisan Records.