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Published: 2002/05/22
by Michael Lello

In The Kitchen – Cornmeal

To call an album "song-oriented" is almost silly in its redundancy. What
album is not somewhat based on songs? But often these songs serve as a
springboard for instrumental excursions, or are pieces in a thematic puzzle.
That is, a concept album is more theme-oriented than it is song-oriented,
and a jam-fest of a CD is more improv-oriented than it is song-oriented.
In The Kitchen, the debut of Chicago-area bluegrass band Cornmeal, is
song-based to the core. Their impressive first CD is remarkably solid in its
songwriting and performance. The bluegrass tradition of the high and
lonesome singer backed by acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin is the
mode of expression here, but somehow singer/songwriter Jason Berger manages
to put a modern twist on the sound using some quirky subject matter. The
usual lyrical suspects – barefoot preachers, a mom cooking in the kitchen,
and a train’s smokestack – are joined by Berger’s concoctions, like a woman
named Sally who posed in a "gentlemen’s magazine" and a scientist trying to
explain man’s origins to an inquisitive little boy.

Still, it is the songs, and the way in which they are performed – with
beautiful vocal harmonies, strong leads and a great acoustic bluegrass band
doing the dirty work – that make this album so enjoyable.The group, only
together for slightly more than two years, is gigging steadily in the
Midwest and playing some big jamband festivals, but unlike many of the
bluegrassy bands on the jam circuit, Cornmeal is not bluegrass-influenced;
they are bluegrass.

The opening track, "Cornmeal", showcases the tight vocal harmonies on top of
a solid arrangement of fiddle, mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. "Dirty
Rag" pays tribute to the aforementioned Sally before "The Boy and The
Scientist" changes gears. This song is more introspective than the previous
two and is in the ballad tradition. A young boy ventures out to find out how
he, and his fellow man, came to be. He asks a scientist, a theologist and a
mysticist. Humorously, and poignantly, each "expert" tells him the same
thing, but in the end says nothing.
"Yesterday Morning" finds Cornmeal sounding a bit like "Nashville
Skyline"-era Bob Dylan, especially in the vocal department. "Monorail" takes
us back to hoe-down territory with an old-tymey tale of riding the rails.
"Wishing Well" treads melancholy "why are we here?" ground touched on
earlier during "The Boy and The Scientist" . The eighth song, "Raging River", an ear-pleasing instrumental comes before
a spirited cover of "Moving On Up" – The Jeffersons’ theme song – wraps things up. Lisa Mackey guests on lead vocals. Both of these tracks are
a nice added bonus, but do not achieve the heights of Cornmeal’s preceding
original, vocal-based tracks.

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