17 Pygmies: The Outlaw J.D. Ray
Trakwerx Records

The stylistic turn from 17 Pygmies' last full-length, 2008's instrumental space-rock opus Celestina, to its latest, an eleven-song collection of post-civil war folk-blues settings titled The Outlaw J.D. Ray, is about as extreme a change as could possibly be imagined. The difference is so great, few if any would guess they're from the same creators. In both cases, the group wholly inhabits the persona of the genre-associated outfit to such a degree that any ‘real' identity below the surface disappears. In short, there's no moment where the mask drops or the curtain's lifted, no ironic gestures to acknowledge the conceit, no hint of tongue-in-cheek tomfoolery (as might be found in The Residents). It's hardly the first time the group has shifted focus. In 2007, 17 Pygmies issued Ballade of Tristram's Last Harping, a self-described stab at “retro ‘60s Psychedelic-‘70s Classic Rock” (also designed as a tribute to the Art Nouveau movement) and has produced scores to classic silent films such as Battleship Potemkin and Nosferatu. The band's been around so long (since 1982), it's presumably long ceased to let its artistic direction be overly determined by trends or sales figures.

On the new album, harmonicas wheeze, and banjos, acoustic guitars, and mandolins strum in songs typically set in lilting 3/4 waltz time and with Jackson Del Rey (aka Philip Drucker) and Meg Maryatt acting as vocal raconteurs (a washboard even surfaces during “Atlas Shrugged Blues”). It's a concept album once again, with this time the story centering on a man wrongly accused of murder who flees his farm and family rather than rot in jail for the rest of his days. Of the two vocalists, Maryatt's singing is the more appealing, with her pure voice and harmonies helping render the songs “I'll See You In Heaven,” “Captured In Amber,” “She's Gone,” and “I Know My Train's A-Comin'” memorable. Even if the music stylistically speaking isn't one's cup of tea (I'll confess early American country-folk music isn't what I normally gravitate towards), one nevertheless comes away applauding the band's wholesale commitment to the project and to presenting the material with an imagination and attention to detail other artists would do well to emulate. The cardboard covers, aged paper stock, period typographic design, and tinted photography (there are even diary records written by the titular protagonist) collectively attest to a level of dedication to the project that can't help but admire.

May 2010