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Spotlight on: After the Flood by The Clumsy Lovers

Cover of After the Flood by The Clumsy Lovers The Clumsy Lovers, After the Flood

(Note: There are two versions of this CD. After their original self-release of After the Flood in 2003, the Clumsy Lovers signed a contract with Nettwerk Records, who re-released the album in 2004 with a slightly modified track order.)

The Clumsy Lovers call their music "raging bluegrass Celtic rock." Now, I don't know about "raging," but there's an infectious energy that permeates every song on their latest release, After the Flood. Fast fiddling (from Andrea Lewis) and banjo picking (courtesy Jason Homey) combine with clever wordplay and emotional truths to make a truly satisfying album.

From the first track, the Clumsy Lovers almost make you believe that "Everything's Okay." Primary songwriter/bassist Chris Jonat's smooth use of the traditional "Katy Hill," combined with his own melody and lyrics, gives vocalist/guitarist Trevor Rogers the opportunity to produce the closest thing to a bluegrass rap that I've heard, while giving his speed vocalizing abilities a real workout. "Everything's Okay" extends into track two, simply entitled "Groove Set," continuing the use of "Katy Hill" and adding two reels ("Temperance Reel" and "Swallowtail Reel") to make a fiery instrumental. Shuffle play on this album is not recommended, because "Everything's Okay" and "Groove Set" are conceptually one continuous track and one feels incomplete without the other.

The next song, "Mercy," showcases Jonat's facility at writing quirky lyrics over an eminently hummable hook that won't let go. I could easily see this becoming a popular radio request, if only because of the following memorable lyrics:

And so the story grows
I got kind of wired and
I drove the snakes from Ireland
And then I broke for lunch

If you want a small nose
Give honesty a try
But if you gotta lie
You may as well lie a bunch

Rogers' smooth, approachable voice (like that of a favored uncle) works to great effect on "Better Me," which peppers Jonat's song with Homey's "Fraser Canyon Breakdown" during the instrumental breaks. Another candidate for popular status, it was chosen as the lead-in on the Nettwerk version of After the Flood, with the other songs shifting appropriately. Following "Better Me" is a four-song concept EP, focusing on excess rainwater, that I'm calling a "flood cycle." The first of these, "Amen," is a wonderful example of my favorite kind of song -- one that tells a complete story, and in first-person. In it, Jonathan Charles Henry McKay, Jr., is worried about his farm, so he prays for rain and gets more than he bargained for. Rogers milks the crescendoing emotion for all it's worth, and drummer Randall Stoll offers freight train-like sticking, making for an extremely intense listening experience, whose chorus is deceptively simple.

"House and Home" follows, one of two Rogers-penned tunes that feels very much like, if not a sequel, a parallel song to its predecessor. The upbeat tempo belies the sadness in the lyrics about an elderly man who will not leave his home even after "forty days and forty nights" of rain. Continuing the 40/40 reference, "After the Flood" references the biblical tale of Noah. Mandolin takes the fore, giving a bit of a rest in the midst of the other quick tunes in this plaintive song that questions whether it's going to take another flood to get people to straighten up. The flood cycle concludes with the traditional "Waterbound," one minute of instrumental virtuosity.

Island influences are brought to bear in "Spare in the Trunk," in which Jonat's lyrics explore a relationship where the man wants to be intense but is bland by nature, while the woman sits by lovingly, amused by his antics. (This one hit rather close to home, except that I have no idea what "I love like down the stairs drunk" means.)

One thing that pleasantly surprised me on this seemingly folky album is the band's willingness to occasionally lay a mild, tinny "Victrola" effect over Rogers' vocals. It is noticeable, but almost always enhances the mood of the songs. The intro to his "Checking Out" is no different, adding to the changing emotional feel. (This transition from fearful to hopeful had me occasionally wondering if the fact that Rogers sometimes pronounces "checking out" like "chicken out" was deliberate.)

The traditional "Highland Skip" is another opportunity for the band to rock out, with each member having a balanced opportunity to shine. The Lovers make an interesting choice in "Playera," a variation on the Spanish composer Sarasate's violin piece of the same name. The Spanish texture comes through and isn't entirely out of place, given the varying influences already displayed, and on its own, it's an entertaining exercise. But I still can't help thinking that it would have been better served on a different album, or with a different placement, coming as it does between "Miss You Much" and "Scarce."

"Scarce" is more of what we've come to expect from this band, but doesn't stand out for any particular reason. However, the final track (excepting a short "hidden" cut), "Rest," is fascinating, not least of all because the bass guitar is noticeable for the first time. It gives this Lewis/Jonat collaboration a somewhat insidious groove that makes the listener want to move more than his tapping foot. The leading violin shows up to keep things temperate, but the effect is undeniable, and, after the relatively conservative feel of the rest of the album, more than a little surprising.

What I love most in entertainment is surprise, and this is a perfect example of why After the Flood is such a terrific album, and one that will definitely be gracing my CD changer for some time to come. The Clumsy Lovers pull from a variety of sources and make a sound that, while it could not necessarily be called "their own," also doesn't sound like anyone else's.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

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