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Album Review

UNCLE SINNER
Ballads and Mental Breakdowns

You know who would love Ballads and Mental Breakdowns? Mark Lanegan. During his post SST and pre-Epic days with The Screaming Trees, he delved heavily into the roots, and I mean roots. He was playing a tape in the basement where we worked one night and I asked him who it was. Turned out, it was a rough cut of his first solo album and, having never heard him nor his group, I had no clue. Placed among tracks which seemed a bit on the dark side was one which struck a chord and I had to ask. Was it O Death? I can't remember, but it was similar in a lot of ways. I smile to think Lanegan was so far ahead of the curve, but even then he had taste and talent. The talent later became obvious and the taste pre-dated the rush to the box office and then record stores to grab anything George Clooney or O Brother, Where Art Thou-related. Yeah, he would dig Uncle Sinner. In more ways that one, they are brothers under the skin.

That skin is cracked and leathery--- as cracked and leathery as the music Uncle Sinner and, sometimes, Mark Lanegan play, and the roots of that music might as well be from another dimension. Listen to it from the perspective of today and it seems almost sinister at times, conjuring up first cousin marriages, outhouses, backwoods laws based upon twisted interpretations of The Bible, snake handling, feuds. Did I mention another dimension?

Uncle Sinner is one guy, true, but Uncle Sinner is also two. There is Uncle Sinner, who plays banjo, slide guitar, 12-string guitar and sings, and there is Fuller Vengeance, adding voice, bass, mandolin, guitar and percussion to the mix. Also brothers under the skin, they bare themselves to the world with their interpretations of music, old and new. The old runs the gamut from songs culled from sources of, say, old Folkways recordings of, by America's standards, the Stone Age. Songs like Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow, found on an old recording of works of Old Regular Baptists and “given a beat.” Josh Thomas' Roustabout, learned from Mike Seeger, is banjo and vocal lament centering on finding one's true love deep in the woods and in compromising circumstances. There is Jack of Diamonds, learned from an old Blind Lemon Jefferson 78; Drama Queen Blues, the guitar part a tribute to Fred McDowell; The Cuckoo, with acknowledgment to Clarence Ashley, Hobart Smith, Townes Van Zandt and a song called The Wagoner's Lad (catch the semi-psych reverbed guitar in the background and on the bridge--- a great touch); and the drowsy Red Rocking Chair, served on a bed of slow and twisting (and excellent) acoustic slide guitar.

This is not textbook music, my friends. Uncle and Fuller live in their own universe which, influenced by the “ancient masters”, is all their own. It reeks of rotting wood and creaking homemade rocking chairs and long rifles; swamps and moonshine and a love dementia; Jesus and Faith and Satan. It is not the Southern Gothic on many people's minds these days, but it is gothic. It cannot help but be. The past was nothing like we imagine it. By our standards, it was worse. Far worse. But it was what it was and was life. With or without toilet paper. Ah, now you begin to understand.

Uncle Sinner's label, Devil's Ruin Records, thought enough of When Jesus Comes to glean it from Ballads and Mental Breakdowns to include it on a two disc compilation of tracks from the darker side. A modernized traditional song wrapped around Uncle's twisted vocal (electronically molded to perfection by Fuller), excerpted segments of real preaching, a thudding beat and accompanying banjo, it is dichotomy in song. “I wanted to have a fire and brimstone, God's-gonna-cut-you-down song that said everything I don't really believe,” Uncle writes in the liner notes. Mission accomplished and the some.

Rodentia: Best of Dark Roots Music is two CDs packed with like mind and music. Just the names of the artists and groups gives one pause: Black River Brethren, Reverend Glasseye, The Dad Horse Experience, Pinebox Serenade, Creech Holler and Those Poor Bastards are only a few joining Uncle Sinner on this romp through the shadows, and you need go no farther to get the idea. Mostly acoustic, this music dances around death and darkness, and it is not so much the individual songs as the cumulative effect which makes the impact. Many of the songs are no more than classic old mountain tunes (seemingly, at least), but sandwiching them between songs like Dead Before You Died and Plague of Frogs is guilt by association, at the least.

Look, I've taken a roundabout path here, so let us review. Uncle Sinner has put together one of the best real old-time albums out there with Ballads and Mental Breakdowns. You don't have to love mountain music or even acoustic music to get what is going on here. Uncle and Fuller hoist the music into a new dimension, a dimension easily accessible by anyone with open mind and open ears. Open your mind. Open your ears. And if you even remotely appreciate where these guys are coming from, watch the festival listings for this next year. After hearing this, there is no doubt in my mind that these guys will be the talk of wherever they play.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.


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