The Ben Miller Band

Any Way, Shape or Form

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Joplin, Missouri is a two-county town in the southwestern part of the state. Its population belongs to a metro area more than three times its size, and provides economic opportunity and sustenance for citizens of not only its home state but also neighboring Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. It links the Great Plains and the Ozark Mountains, while its cultural life is informed by the Midwest, South, and West. On Any Way, Shape or Form, Joplin's native sons the Ben Miller Band dig deeper than ever before into this cross pollination of musical styles and come out sounding like no one but themselves. Producer Vance Powell -- whose experience with roots artists includes Wanda Jackson and Buddy Guy, as well as rocker Jack White -- understands BMB's "Ozark Stomp" implicitly. The rumbling opener "The Outsider" evokes Ralph Stanley, Dock Boggs, and the Bad Livers with Miller's banjo, Doug Dicharry's drums and washboard, and Scott Leeper's washtub bass, with chanted backing vocals and a stinging lead slide guitar break by guest Chad "Gravy" Graves. "You Don't Know" melds vintage ZZ Top-cum-John Lee Hooker boogie, with soulful country and Ozark-style back-porch singing. The progressive country bluegrass in "Ghosts" is a set highlight, as is the crunchy rocker "Burning Building." The only cover here is a reading of the utterly mysterious traditional tune "The Cuckoo." In this version, the 13th Floor Elevators' garage psychedelia meets Ozark and Appalachian blues in a wind tunnel of reverb, knob-twiddling electronic sounds, rippling guitars, and tribal drumming. Things calm down on the barn waltz "Twinkle Toes," as Dobro, banjo, percussion, and washtub bass all meet in a cut-time country bluegrass singalong. The chug and churn of "Life on Wheels" features a moaning harmonica, brash guitars, and triple-time rhythms that meld Johnny Cash's rhythmic country rockabilly to garage rock aesthetics. An old-time parlor waltz lies at the heart of "Prettiest Girl," but is considerably expanded to include mariachi horns without losing its thread. Two cuts in this 13-song set don't work: the faux 1920s whitebread jazz of "23 Skidoo" with a terribly affected vocal, and "No War," an electric topical folk song recalling the Phil Ochs of the late '60s musically, but whose lyrics fall short of that lofty mark. These are small errors rather than overreaching excess, however. Any Way, Shape or Form is a fine album revealing that the Ben Miller Band have upped their game to include a production style that equals their musical ambition and restlessness.

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