Virginia's Hackensaw Boys began as something of a half-way point between new-roots songsters like Gillian Welch and Tupelo and old time string bands. This, their third album, is their first to consist entirely of originals. It's a confusing listen, with some genuinely elegant, touching moments rudely offset by self-consciously wacky tunes that sound more like parodies of string band music than the modern-day reinventions they were clearly aiming for.
The disc opens with "Sun's Work Undone," one of the highest peaks - a slowly unfolding lament that matches traditional instrumentation with pristine studio polish and an appealing ragged-but-right performance. The following cut, "Cannonball," has all the same elements misassembled into a garishly goofy performance. The studio sound is incongruous and odd (processed AM-radio vocals backed by smoothly in-tune vocal harmonies), and the track is an all too precious attempt to write a brand new old time lyric.
It's a pattern that unfurls maddeningly across the disc. Screwball numbers try the listener's patience, and just when you reach for the stop button, a tune like the affecting "High Faller" comes up and redeems the group for a few minutes. If you nix the half composed of hokum and shtick, listeners are left with a bittersweet collection of well-written modern alt.-twang of about EP length. The Hackensaw Boys clearly have potential to join the wave of contemporary young old-time musicians bringing new relevance to the music - they just need to keep the antics in check.