Polecat reads at times like a cooler Dave Matthews Band and at others like a chiller Michael Franti and Spearhead. The members of the band are extremely talented instrumentalists, which means that they can pingpong back and forth between the sort of acoustic-based instrumental jam that DMB is best known for and the free-wheeling, world-music-informed pop songs that Franti is mostly known for (Ok, it’s really only that “Say Hey (I Love You)” song, but you know what I mean) without missing a beat anywhere. As a result, Into the Wind is a remarkable album.
The instrumental songs are really where Polecat blows it out of the water. Armed with a mindmelting drummer that occasionally takes center stage with complex rhythms, unique sounds, and incredible taste, they’re able to pivot between parts of songs seamlessly. This is an important skill when you’re cranking out songs that mash up Irish folk melodies and reggae (as they do in the cleverly named “Lochs of Dread”). They also know how to meld American folk, traditional country, acoustic pop, and more into their eclectic mix. It wouldn’t do justice to try to explain all the inventive fusions they create: just know that they tear it up in ways that both impress and surprise me, which is a rare achievement.
Elsewhere they show off their vocal melodic ability, in tunes like “In the Cold” and “Fly on the Wall,” where the band wraps itself around Aaron Guest’s melodies. Polecat is proof that you can have catchy pop melodies and not sacrifice an ounce of musicianship–if more people would take up the mantle, music would be a much more interesting place. But it starts with every member of the band being incredible talented at their instruments, and that’s a rare thing. (If everyone were as talented as Chris Thile, we could all be the Punch Brothers, for example.) All that to say, you’ll be singing along while also cocking your head to try to hear the guitar, drum, and fiddle parts that make the songs so interesting.
Polecat’s Into the Wind has fun songs all around, whether they’re instrumental or singalong. If you’re into an album that both shows off instrumental prowess and makes you smile, you should check this one out ASAP.
It is hard to understand the concept of place without leaving. Even when visiting a place other than your own, it doesn’t have the same impact as when you actively sever the connection with where you’re from. It’s then, when you don’t have a place to call your own, that place becomes so obvious and vital. I’ve been writing and thinking about place recently, so it’s fitting that the bluegrass of Seven Handle Circus‘ Whiskey Stills & Sleeping Pills fell into my lap right now.
“I’ve been around the world just once before/and no one quite knows what we’re fighting for/not anymore,” sings the band on the opener. The conflicted relationship to place permeates the titles of this five-song EP: “I’ve Been Around The World,” “Walking Through the Wilderness,” “Alabama Line,” “Georgia Man,” and “Cruel World” each mention some aspect of travel. “Alabama Line” is my personal favorite, as I’m currently living in the Yellowhammer State. The traditional bluegrass instrumentation (acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, string bass) and group vocals give rise to a jubilant chorus: “Boys, we’re headed south down the Chattahoochee River/ to the Alabama Line!” Rumbling toms and a lively fiddle add extra punch to the tune, turning this from a nice song into a memorable highlight.
“Georgia Man” leans heavily on the fiddle, matching the melancholy lyrics about permanent travel with a buoyant melody and some flashy soloing. “Maybe I’d be fine / working 9 to 5 / but then I’d never find / what it means to be alive,” the vocalist notes; and that’s a tension that goes through every conception of place. If the only way to recognize that we’re in a place is to see it leaving in the rear view mirror, we have few to blame but ourselves: in this late-modern era, rare is it that we are forced to leave our home by someone else. We choose to leave, for adventure or profit or education; our feelings after that are our own responsibility. “Georgia Man” knows this, and that dual focus makes the tune incredible on a lyrical level.
The music itself is worth acclaim; the band can sing and play with the best of them. But in a crowded bluegrass field, it’s not virtuosic playing that wows me (okay, Chris Thile, you still wow me); it’s investing that musical ability with heart, soul and meaning. Seven Handle Circus does this excellently, and that’s what makes this five-song EP worth your time. You’ll sing along too, of course.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.