After listening to the last few Jack Rose records religiously, it’s something of a shock to hear vocals on a Rose-related record. But that’s just what you get as this self-titled disc starts up: a cover of “Little Sadie” rambling and swinging hard like the rock ‘n’ roll cornerstone it is. Colored with shades of bluegrass, blues, and country music, this self-titled record takes American roots music and strips it until all that’s left is its energy and attitude.
Except that the group covers a couple of tunes from Kensington Blues and Dr. Ragtime and His Pals, it’s tempting to think that The Black Twig Pickers are the stars of this record more than Rose is. When “Little Sadie” kicks the record off, the first thing I hear isn’t Jack’s guitar. Instead, a flurry of fiddle, tin can percussion, and harmonica blow out of the speakers with either Nathan Bowles or Mike Gangloff blurting out lyrics like a drunken member of the audience. “Little Sadie” has seen many incarnations, but most people probably know it as “Cocaine Blues” and are likely to be familiar with the Folsom Prison version by Johnny Cash more than any other. The need-no-one attitude and rebellious quality of that song sets the pace for the rest of the record, which teeters between bluegrass, country music, and the sobriety of Rose’s well-crafted instrumental jams.
Many of the album’s highlights are the songs with vocals. It’s fun to hear “Kensington Blues” played by a talented bluegrass group, but Jack Rose’s typically contemplative mannerisms don’t exactly match the band’s upbeat tempo and tendency to play a ramshackle style. Nonetheless, Rose’s performance falls in line perfectly with the rest of the band and his rhythm playing holds together its myriad impulses. On the surface there seems to be a lot in common between this album and Dr. Ragtime and His Pals, but where the former often wound itself up into hypnotic patterns, this one lets loose and aims for a grittier, more physical satisfaction. To that end the band keeps their songs strong and simple. They forgo showy instrumentation in favor of solid melodies and galloping, dancey beats and in the process give their music a tough, almost punk-like exterior. That’s not to say they’ve cramped their country style any, they’ve just amplified it with the kind of swagger that was once synonymous with it.