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Pinetop Seven

One could lump Pinetop Seven with the fine alt-country bands to emerge in the last decade -- Wilco, Whiskeytown, Son Volt, et al -- but to do so would fail to acknowledge the scope of the band's complex brilliance. If you're looking to make comparisons, idiosyncratic outfits who create strange hybrids of country music and other major styles while adding a ton of subtly quirky turn-of-the-millennium kinds of sounds, bands like Lambchop and Sparklehorse, make more sense as reference points. But even these parallels don't really do Pinetop Seven's highly original, yet timeless sound justice.

Pinetop Seven's music conjures vast, dusty American open spaces populated by outcasts, loners, eccentrics, and malcontents, the kind portrayed in films over the years from John Huston's The Misfits to Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. The band's songs are steeped in the poignant loneliness of the cowboy ballad, the mountaintop isolation of the hillbilly folksong, the onerous stigmatization of the Delta blues lament, and the desperate activism of the protest song. And yet, traces of jazz and avant-garde music creep into Pinetop Seven's sophisticated arrangements. The instruments you'd expect of this kind of music are all there -- guitar, piano, a little banjo here, pedal steel there, off in the distance a weeping mandolin, or maybe a lonesome accordion, bright carnival colors a little faded by age and sorrow. But there's so much more -- warm, reedy clarinets throughout most of the songs, trumpet, cello, standup bass, violins, vibes, flugelhorn, toy piano, marimbas and bongos, feedback and loops, shoehorns and spoons -- all elegantly painted into the corners of Pinetop Seven's soaring dirges.

A common complaint of the country renaissance among indie musicians in recent years is the perceived inauthenticity of educated middle class kids replicating this traditional music. Yet Pinetop Seven's music feels profoundly authentic. The group's songs are deeply indebted to the classic sorrowful styles mentioned here, but they also represent something bold, ambitious, and new.

The background: Pinetop Seven's founding members are writer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Darren Richard and fellow multi-instrumentalist Charles Kim, who met in New York at college in 1990 and began playing together. After a brief sojourn to Nashville, they relocated to Chicago around '94 and recruited bassist Ryan Hembrey. The trio recorded an eponymous debut LP (released in '97) and the subsequent No Breath in the Bellows EP ('98) in the attic of their apartment building. Both were relatively straight, simple, country-derived records that evoked Old West High Noonish cowboy towns full of dusty saloons, wooden sidewalks, and rickety fleabag hotels populated by no-good men and exotic women.

Without totally doing away with that kind of mood, Pinetop Seven broadened its sound with the ambitious, breathtaking Rigging the Toplights (1998), adopting richer, lusher instrumentation and incorporating some windblown spaghetti western melancholy, piano hall echo, theatrical melodrama, and avant-garde instrumentalism into its big, open country sound. "The Fear of Being Found" is a beautiful example of Pinetop Seven's idiosyncratic genius: Richards's haunted, echoing vocals sketch out an impressionistic portrait of a daughter on the run, over a soft watercolor blur of instrumental regret that features acoustic, electric, and nylon guitar, bongo and rainstick for percussion, and clarinet from guest Ken Vandermark. It's a rich, lonesome, lovely piece of songwriting. "Finding the Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir," which, like so many Pinetop titles, sounds like it could be a lost Faulkner story, recounts in deft, delicate strokes a ten-year-old boy's loss of innocence upon finding a corpse while fishing.

On 2000's, Bringing Home the Last Great Strike, longtime member Charles Kim is gone and the group has evolved into a loose ten-person collective, with Richard the leader and Hembrey at his side. With Bringing Home the Last Great Strike, Pinetop Seven further expands on the slowly waltzing, languorous art-country sweep of the previous album. On songs like the aching "On the Last Ride In," a lazy tale of the itinerant's regret that's actually one of the more traditional pieces on the record, Richard once again assumes the familiar pose of the leathery, weary narrator, telling these old stories because they simply have to be told. The results are wildly successful. It's another outstanding record from a great group.