I reviewed Red Molly’s last album, Love and Other Tragedies, in January; I was rather late, as the album actually came out in 2008. It was only “current” because they were on the cover of Dirty Linen at the time. I won’t make that mistake again. With their new release, James, Red Molly makes a strong case for keeping a close eye on them. James is not a carbon copy of Love and Other Tragedies, although I would have been happy with another album like that. But here, Red Molly stretches out.
First of all, there are drums. Now, when a folk group adds drums, it can mean the end of any claim to folk purity; often, this signals that a group has sold out. No such worries here. The drums, often played with brushes or mallets, enhance the energy or the mood of the songs they are used on, but never overwhelm the material. And they are only used on about half of the songs.
On End of the Line, the band adds a new musical flavor, Western Swing, and it works. End of the Line is one of a few songs where the group also adds some tasty piano parts; again, this seems not like a radical departure, but rather a natural evolution. Maybe the next album won’t have drums or piano, but they will be available if the material calls for them.
But the most significant way that Red Molly stretches out here is with their vocals. The singing on Love… was fine, but here, they demonstrate a greater range, and the results are tremendous. Last time, I described Laurie MacAllister as the country one, but listen to her performance on Lookin’ for Trouble. This is as good an example of blues singing as you are likely to find. Abbie Gardner was the bluesy one last time, but she delivers her own song Jezebel in a way that will make you think the song is a rediscovered Dolly Parton classic. And then there is Gulf Coast Highway. This is my favorite Nanci Griffith song, so I’m especially critical here. And Laurie MacAllister nails it. Some of the gloss in Griffith’s arrangement is gone here, but that works better for Red Molly. Guest vocalist Fred Gillen Jr has a tough assignment here, and I thought he could have blended better with MacAllister, but he certainly does his part to capture the emotion of the song. And there is Falling In. Even in a group where the singers blend so well, you don’t usually hear a song where the lead vocals are shared. But MacAllister starts off Falling In, then Gardner takes over for a couple of verses, and finally Carolann Solebello takes it home. This could have fallen apart at any point, but it never does.
The songs here address a somewhat wider range of subjects that last time. True, the vast majority of the songs are still about relationships. But among these are two songs about coalminers and one about a moonshiner. These people have relationships, but they also live in the wider world. They are doomed but noble working class heroes. In the song Poor Boy, the heroism is featured and the relationships are not explored at all. And still, Red Molly does a fine job of capturing all of the feelings on this wider emotional palette.
So I am very pleased to have the review of James on time. But there is one small problem. This means that I will have a much longer wait for their next one.
Red Molly: Falling In
Red Molly: Lookin‘ for Trouble