Good luck trying to pigeonhole Sassparilla’s sound, which is unquestionably unique and very good. Listening to the Magpie CD is like trying to pick out flavors in a good red wine….blackberry, tobacco, plums – you’ve seen the labels. What I hear at various points suggests Tom Waits, Counting Crows, Punch Brothers, Mumford & Sons – but none repeated enough to be derivative, just familiar reference points to point out the range of Sassparilla.
Magpie is feel-good funky music with a touch of darkness that is both compelling and yet easy to listen to – feels like a comfortable pair of jeans. The harmonica and reso guitar create a funky sound throughout, enhanced by the washtub bass, which is as interesting as any bass you’ll ever hear. Drums and washboard add the perfect percussion to drive things along. Front man Kevin Blackwell’s voice has a warmth that’s reminiscent of Randy Newman on several songs although in his own unique style. On top of this, Magpie showcases really good songwriting: almost every song has a compelling lyric fragment that anchors the song and becomes personal after a couple listens: ‘I’m threadbare, comin apart at the seams’ or ‘can’t prove it’s real unless it bleeds’ or ‘the devil loves a broken heart’ or the entire “All the Way In”.
Speaking of writing, I have only three nits to pick with Magpie:
- While I have myself been accused of dropping F bombs prolifically, I don’t usually see a reason to include them in song lyrics. It strikes me as lazy writing, although I can see how some could consider them artistically necessary on Magpie – I just disagree.
- A couple of songs seem to end too soon – they’re so good that a little more might even be better.
- Finally, Naima’s background vocal is incredibly delicate – maybe too much. I’d like to hear a little more of it in the mix.
There are no bad songs here.They’re all consistently good enough to be ‘favorites’ – I have at least three – you can pick your own. The sequencing of songs on Magpie makes it feel like a live club set. “Threadbare” is the first of four very good upbeat songs – each unique– that get you going and set the stage for the dramatic slowdown of “Buick”, where every measure is felt and trumpet colors the background. “Buick” sets a thoughtful mood as a backdrop for lyrics that a previous generation came to expect from Tom Waits. “You Took It All” then lifts the mood with an easy pace, a caressed lead vocal, a lush guitar melody line and syrupy trumpet. “All the Way In” is simply a great song and maybe the best of this show. Urgent guitar and lyrics demand attention, supported by an unexpected, searing fiddle that sets the tone and leads the break. “The Man Who Howled Wolf” is a fun closing song with heavy buzzing bass and funky rock blues that makes a standard theme seem fresh with the right music and lyrics: “every time I think about her, make me break down and cry”.
If the regular complement of Sassparilla’s instruments (resonator guitar, harmonica, drums, washtub bass and washboard) isn’t eclectic enough for you, Magpie also adds some horn section cameos, courtesy of Katie Presley (trumpet) and Daniel Lamb (trombone) from the March Fourth Marching Band. The shining fiddle of Annalisa Tornfelt (Black Prairie) lifts “All The Way In" to a higher plane. Magpie is about as ‘indie’ as Indie rock gets. It should be a major hit for Sassparilla, and with slicker production and promotion, might even win some awards. The band’s touring has been concentrated in Oregon, so if you can’t see them live, enjoy this most excellent CD.
For more on Sassparilla please visit:
Album review: Magpie by Sassparilla
Posted on December 5, 2012
Released: Oct 23, 2012
1Threadbare 2Star 3The Mary Celeste 4Two Black Hearts 5Buick 6You Took It All 7Broke Down Engine 8All the Way In 9The Man Who Howled Wolf
Click the album cover to check out Magpie on iTunes.
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