Roll Me, Tumble Me is the third album and first major label release by the Deadly Gentlemen. The band’s paradoxical name is apt: they are at once young Turks and seasoned veterans, playing their music with the energy and abandon of rockers, yet executing it with the technical precision of players who are virtuosos at the forefront of their craft. They indeed have the refinement of gentlemen, but their performances are deadly.
The Deadly Gentlemen’s appearance at this past summer’s Grey Fox festival (2013) served as an unofficial release for Roll Me, Tumble Me. This reviewer caught their shows both at the main stage and the dance tent and picked up the new album (which the band graciously signed). It is a worthy installment in the canon of a leading band in the new wave of bluegrass-oriented American acoustic music. They’re the kind of band who, though thoroughly steeped and trained in the bluegrass tradition, more likely choose to cover songs by classic and contemporary rock bands like the Beatles, Stones, Grateful Dead and Vampire Weekend. Yet there are no special effects, everything you hear is elicited from the five traditional bluegrass instruments and the expert musicians who wield them. And there are few groups who have more fun making music together in live performance.
“Beautiful’s Her Body”
“Bored of the Raging”
The Deadly Gentlemen began in 2008 as a curious side project by Greg Liszt. While earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology at M.I.T. in the early 2000’s, Liszt found time to develop an inventive and highly innovative four-finger banjo technique. At the time he was getting ever busier as a founding member of the seminal band Crooked Still, the band that, along with the Punch Brothers, arguably ushered in our current era of adventurous and eclectic new wave acoustic music. Indeed, when Liszt was called in 2006 to tour with Bruce Springsteen as part of the Seeger Sessions band, it was Noam Pikelny (now of the Punch Brothers) who covered for Liszt on the Crooked Still gigs.
For the first album, Liszt assembled a four-piece band that included the fiddle wunderkind Mike Barnett, and Sam Grisman (son of David) on bass, both still with the band on the latest album. At the time, barely in his mid-twenties, Liszt was the old man of the band and composed an entire album of what he would term “banjo-rap.” The Bastard Masterpiece presented a collection of songs with rhythmically inventive and varied instrumental grooves, grounded by accessible and catchy riffs and melodic hooks. Liszt’s impossible-to-sing-along-to acrobatic spoken-word vocals displayed a great deal of wit, imagination and erudition presented in the persona of a cynical, dissolute character.
By contrast the new album, which adds Berklee-trained prodigy Dominick Leslie on mandolin and heavy metal-trained Stash Wyslouch on guitar, has a completely different character. The boys would surely balk if I called it “more mature,” but the character of the music and lyrics (still all by Liszt) are decidedly sweeter and more sincere. All five members join in (with very rich harmonies) on vocals led now by Wyslouch rather than Liszt. The rhythmic sophistication of the album is far subtler. Rather than crisp, punchy, funky grooves, most of the songs do a much finer layering of instruments and vocals with gradual shifting of the pulse and expansion of the dynamics over the course of a song. This is not ostentatious display of technique, but rather a band that is developing a group virtuosity all its own. Indeed, the various threads are so expertly interwoven that it is only upon repeated listening that one can start to pick apart and appreciate just what role each is playing in the total effect. And instead of insistent, rapid-fire, ornery, monotone vocals, almost every lyric is set to a gentle slow-moving melody that is harmonized by several voices at once.
“Bored of the Raging,” the first single (read “video’) released from the album is a perfect exemplar of the Deadly Gentlemen’s new template. Lyrically, Liszt turns the jaded attitude of his character from the first album on its head. He invokes both boredom and rage which formed so much of the thematic content of the first album. However, now he insists that he’s bored of the pointless dead-end raging which “only takes you up from the floor to the ceiling.” And instead of a litany of lyrics and reams of story-telling details, there’s really just one verse and one chorus that repeat several times. Musically, however, it never quite steps in the same river twice. It opens with a hushed sighing figure from the bass and fiddle as the breathy vocals come in to establish the basic melody. Rhythmically it seems to hover in place until Liszt’s banjo enters with the first statement of the chorus. Gradually, each instrument increases its pulse and insistence, subdividing the beat ever further in compelling cross-cutting ways, crescendoing as the vocals blend toward the background (though growing ever more full-throated) and each instrument subtly and briefly moves forward in the mix. The continuous building of tension and energy over a catchy repeated set of lyrics leads it into the mode of an anthemic sing-along in the jam-band, arena-rock mode reminiscent of Phish and Vampire Weekend, or dare I say, Mumford and Sons?
The majority of the songs on the album follow this same template. And if there is a shortcoming to the collection, it is that overall the songs don’t exert an individual character. You find yourself singing or grooving along with each one, but what is distinctive to the album as a whole starts to feel a bit generic track to track. The songs are catchy but not especially memorable. This is highlighted in the reinterpretations of two songs from the first release, The Bastard Masterpiece. The lyrics of “Working” are an exquisite display of bile, resentment, and self-loathing but lose much of their sharpness when attached to a lilting melody and nested in rich sweet harmonies. The title track of the new album “Roll Me, Tumble Me” still retains the great singable hook of the chorus that made it a stand out track on the first album. But in the new setting the song, whose lyrics are self-consciously ambivalent about the healthiness of the yearned-for relationship, comes across as a tender serenade rather than the edgier, knowing presentation of the original.
This ain’t your grandpappy’s bluegrass, but then it’s not your average jamgrass either. It’s a highly inventive, instrumentally virtuosic, rhythmically complex, but melodically accessible collection of songs. Songs performed by five of the best musicians in American acoustic music who are making a commitment to, and a case for, the band as an organic entity even more agile, creative and satisfying than the sum of its parts.