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Jim White Vs. the Packway Handle Band

Take It Like a Man – 2015 (Yep Roc)

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

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CDs by Jim White Vs. the Packway Handle Band

Including the forthcoming bluegrassification of The Who's "Tommy," this new collaborative album from alt.-Americana mainstay Jim White - think David Byrne with banjo - and Athens, Ga. band The Packway Handle Band will most likely be the strangest and most challenging bluegrass release of 2015.

Folk-poet, filmmaker, musician, and philosopher, Jim White's "Wrong-Eyed Jesus" is a classic twisted noir-country album, and despite itself is actually pretty darned listenable. The Packway Handle Band is a bluegrass group who went in search of direction and found White, who not only signed on to produce this album, but elected to insert himself into the band.

Despite their traditional instrumental line-up, the result is like nothing one would expect to encounter on a bluegrass festival stage.

Deliberately demanding, "Take It Like A Man" confronts the listener as bluegrass seldom does. It isn't all thorns and metal shrapnel, but there is no shortage of off-putting elements that will cause the unmotivated to scurry in the opposite direction.

White shares the lead vocal and songwriting with the PHB, and his songs will confuse many. The chunky off-beat, "Wordmule" would not be the best introduction to White the bluegrass artist; "Paranormal Girlfriend"- surely something Ralph Stanley never considered subject manner - runs closer to tradition with five-string frailing: "I was thinking of you when the roof caved in; and I've got a funny feeling you were thinking about me, too." His "Sorrow's Shine" is gentler and part-way melodic.

Other tracks including "Smack Dab in a Big Tornado" and "Corn Pone Refugee" favorably remind one of neo-traditional string bands. The songs written and fronted by members of PHB are unlikely to be gentler on listeners. "Breathing Room" and "Gravity Won't Fail" have fewer sharp corners than some of White's songs, but remain a mile and a half away from mainstream, contemporary bluegrass.

"Take It Like A Man" is more likely to be embraced by those who don't like bluegrass and have never heard it than it is by those who typically purchase albums on the national survey. Initially jarring, its charms reveal themselves, much like shards of glass work their way from under skin.