[Editor's note: Chain Letters will be in stores on Jan. 22. Preorders were shipped on Jan. 8, and the album can be purchased via Saddle Creek.]
by Dan McCarthy
This new Big Harp album, Chain Letters, is a lot nastier than the first one, White Hat. Consider this Coen brothers-ish bit from the first song: "Every shit car pullin' back onto the road / Squealin' its tires and gunnin' for home / Leavin' behind it some shit baby too new to crawl."
The song is called "You Can't Save 'Em All," and the unfortunate roadside orphan is just one in a list of the lost, a list that also includes a yachtsman "afloat on the sea like a flake in a tank" and an acolyte on her knees, "bobbin' in front of the prophet that holds her in thrall."
It is amazing what the band does in this not-long song, telling at least four different dreadful stories, coming back to a kick-ass chorus enough times that you can sing along during your first listen, and there's just enough time for a filthy guitar solo. The distortion on the organ and bass sounds gritty as hell; the distortion on the guitar sounds like it broke.
I love this record. I love this band. They are friends of mine, and I'm not trying to be objective.
Look at this song, the fourth one, "Good News." It's got a wacky time signature — I'd call it 11/8 — but it makes you want to dance. And it's a come-on-let's-party song, as far as I can tell, in which the singer addresses the listeners as deer. As in, the four-legged woodland creatures. I defy you to play the bass guitar part that happens during the solos.
Actually, here's what you should do with this record, in order from hardest/most rewarding to easiest/bare minimum:
1. Learn all of the songs, by heart, on an instrument of your choice. You will, at that time, be an incredible musician.
2. Figure out how Chris Senseney does that soulful thing with his voice, called melisma, that Whitney Houston could do with credibility but pretty much everyone since has tried to sell and failed, including every contestant ever to sing on TV: Figure out how Chris S. from Nebraska pulls it off.
3. Buy the record and listen at least once while paying attention to the liner notes.
On that last (and like I said, bare minimum) one: I'm sure I'm beyond fuddy-duddy on liner notes, but for instance, in the song "Outside in the Snow," there's a line that I thought was "you got to stand outside Kenosha in the snow." You know, Kenosha, Wisconsin. I bet it snows a lot there. Wrong. Thank heaven for (1) liner notes, and (2) the Internet, because the line is "you got to stand outside Canossa in the snow," and it turns out Canossa, Italy, has its own interesting medieval history and Wikipedia entry. This record doesn't require research, but it does reward curiosity. Like every decent record should.
My only reservation in recommending, or, like, hyper-hyping this record is that I did play a tiny bit of accordion on it, and nothing sounds shittier than somebody tooting his own cheap horn. But whatever, you won't notice the accordion. There is so much great stuff on this record, on every song.
Dan McCarthy works for himself, and his boss is a jerk. Keep up with his music on McCarthy Trenching's Facebook page.