New Mongrels - Raised Incorruptible
Release Date: January 14, 2014
Record Label: Self-Released
Of all of the projects I’ve written about in my time as a music journalist, New Mongrels might have the weirdest backstory. According to the promo materials for their new record, a collection of pleasing rootsy Americana songs called Raised Incorruptible, New Mongrels is a band that has existed, in some form or another, for the past 148 years. Initially founded in the civil war time by a man named Henry Brooke, New Mongrels were known early on as the “Smythe County Mongrels Society.” Back then, the group wasn’t a gathering of recording artists – which goes without saying – but rather a collective of people who got together to drink hard cider, talk about “unified moral code,” and play rollicking musical incarnations of the entire book of Psalms. Members of the Smythe County Mongrels Society brought instruments, voices, dogs, drinks, and everything else they could muster to their meeting sessions, and the resulting environment was probably somewhere between a vibrant gospel church service and a bluegrass dive bar.
Years and years later, Mr. Brooke’s great, great granddaughter, Haynes Brooke, found his family legacy preserved in the form of a legal charter in the Smythe County courthouse. (In case you’re a student of geographic exactitude, Smythe County is located in Virginia.) Haynes took the discover as the inspiration to get his own old-time musical group together, and while the resulting collection of musicians – renamed the “New Mongrels” – brings original material to the table rather than simply singing through a Psalm book, I would imagine the overall feel of the music isn’t much different from what Brooke’s great, great grandpa was doing almost 150 years ago.
All of this is, of course, just a long way of saying that New Mongrels and their new Raised Incorruptible LP are about as blatantly old-fashioned as Americana music comes. Those who have come to appreciate folk thanks to the work of modern innovators like Justin Vernon won’t find much to like here. These songs and arrangements wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the American Anthology of Folk Music – though their production does get a semi-modern makeover. Still, while “old-fashioned” is often a descriptor used to dismiss bands, I think it works quite well here most of time. It’s fairly clearly that the band is going largely for a traditional and communal folk outpouring – hence the 13 band members and 10 different singers. The frequent switching of vocalists actually makes Raised Incorruptible feel more like a soundtrack or anthology than a cohesive album, but one would imagine that that was also part of the plan.
I’m not even going to attempt to parse which band member is singing on which song, but suffice to say that each singer brings a unique timbre and delivery to each track. Some songs are sung by a male singer who sounds like Michael Stipe; others are delivered by a girl with a honey-sweet voice, not unlike Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks (see opening track, “Time”). None of the singer’s are virtuosos, which means we never get the soaring tension that was provided in spades by 2013’s best folk music contributions (records from the likes of the Civil Wars or the Lone Bellow). But the sheer variety on display throughout Raised Incorruptible is something to be celebrated, and it keeps the album interesting during every one of its 14 tracks.
Still, there’s something about how this record sounds that leaves something to be desired. The music is fine, and the band members create interesting sounds together – both when those sounds are original and especially when they are referential of an earlier time. For instance of the latter, the flowing boy-girl harmonies of and the soft production style “Love it Madly” make the song sound like a legitimate outtake from a Peter, Paul, and Mary album. Moments later, the gorgeous fiddle/accordion duet on the album-highlighting title track sounds like something I’ve heard a million times on Counting Crows’ Across a Wire live album. But in producing the album, founding member Haynes Brooke can’t seem to decide whether to make this record a slick feast of studio-bound modern folk (a la T. Bone Burnett’s production work) or to leave the recordings raw and live. Instead of choosing a side, Brooke sort of hits somewhere in between, and it’s generally not a good place for the production to be. The album could have been significantly better with more popping production, but it also could have been quite fascinating as a completely live album, documenting this unorthodox musical collective as they got together in a room and built songs out of nothing. As a result, Raised Incorruptible feels like a missed opportunity of sorts – albeit a very pretty one.
That backstory alone makes me interested in listening.
It's definitely worth a listen, especially since you can stream the whole thing on Bandcamp. Like I said in the review, I think the production misses a few opportunities, but the music itself is interesting and really cool considering the origin story.