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Published: 2001/07/17
by Jesse Jarnow

Plain Brown Suit – The Deadly Nightshade Family Singers

self-released
Forget the hullabaloo about the latest newgrass fusion act, whomever they
may be. Forget the latest wacky combination of genres that ends up sounding
like the same acoustic funk act singing Bill Monroe tunes and calling
themselves exotic. It’s boring. The Deadly Nightshade Family Singers, on the
other hand, is not. They do not aspire to the high, lonesome sound. Instead,
they have found a combination almost as potent, something more akin to the
slow, macabre sound. It’s a nice change.
The band’s name, for once, is actually evocative of their sound, of the band
playing on the corner in Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s "the Nightmare Before
Christmas", of smoke creeping beneath rickety fences and rising just off of
the street, through dying leaves, and into an orange and brown autumnal sky.
They are a string band in most senses of the word, though they are not
necessarily danceable, unless one is inclined towards waltzes and ballroom.
It has a different rhythmic drive than bluegrass. If bluegrass music is a
celebration of life, then the Deadly Nightshade Family Singers celebrate
death as an inevitability — coming to peace with it in a beautiful way
instead of denying it through frenzy. It is not about bloody death or
psychological death, or even any specific kind of death, rather than just
the plain finality of the outcome.
The timbre of the instruments add a lot to this feeling: slow-picked banjo
accompanied by a mournfully droning accordion along combined with the
doubling of certain instrumental parts. Bob Barnes’ accordion works
immeasurable wonders in creating a vibe, the sound of a trapped wind rushing
ghostly through a box.
The two primary vocalists, Randall Throckmorton and Lisa Fuglie, complement
the instrumentation well: drawling, wobbly, and just eerie enough.
Throckmorton, especially, has a great, distinct voice when he pushes it to
the edge. It is discomforting in the same way as Jimmie Dale Gilmore,
rubbery and reassuring. One might accuse an ordinary singer of strain,
though this is done with utter confidence — the vibrato controlled like a
captain who knows how to follow his haywire compass.
The band is less successful when they veer into klezmer, such as on Firm
di Mechutonim/Freylach, trying too hard towards a specific style, a
specific genre. When the accordion leads, it still sounds right and
familiar. When the band reverts to the head of the tune, it sounds as if
they are going too fast for their own taste, falling prey to more
traditionalist arrangements.
The key to the music is the shift between dark and light feels, often within
the context of the same melodic phrase — or sometimes even when one
instrument is playing brightly while another is playing darkly. This is done
to much success on See What A Gun Can Do. It evokes longing and
denial. As such, the centerpiece of the disc is an arrangement of Ary
Barroso’s Brazil: a nearly perfect arrangement of a nearly perfect
song.

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