Although Barnes is a banjo picker, on Pizza Box he bravely goes where no man has gone before -- with the instrument, and with arrangements that borrow elements of hard rock, R&B, rap, electronica, and country music. His lyrics, as always, are full of snide humor and keen insight, and while he claims he's not a masterful picker, his solo excursions on the banjo are full of unexpected twists and turns. "Charlie," the tale of a ne'er do well dope fiend trying to survive a long stretch in the pen for selling a rock or crack to the wrong guy, blends a looped hip-hop style rhythm with some lonesome mountain banjo for a tune that's part rap and part Appalachian moan. It's an unlikely mash-up, but Barnes makes it sound as natural as breathing. "Caveman" is a slow, stomping rocker with Dave Matthews on harmony vocals. Barnes anticipates the extinction of the human race with a few paraphrases of Biblical prophesy -- "The times get harder, then the cities burn" -- and tops it off with an skewed banjo solo. The title track is a bluesy pop song that mulls over the end of a relationship. Barnes strings together the small, intimate moments of a relationship with a weary, intimate vocal that elevates an ordinary breakup to high tragedy. "Miss Misty Swan" is a ragged rocker with a jug band feel that's based on the folk chestnut "Wild About My Lovin'." Halfway trough, Barnes drops in a jazzy Monk-influenced banjo solo full of odd squawks and bent notes. "Broken Clock" is a wrenching country tune about a broken marriage that uses all the clichés but manages to avoid sounding too maudlin. Barnes also gives us a trio of rockers. "Bone" rides a funky, kicked-back groove and includes an odd rap interlude and another dissonant banjo solo; "Overdue" is a quiet, passionate salute to long-lasting true love that sounds a bit like the Band, and "Sparta TN" is a Southern rocker with clanging electric guitars and sharp R&B horns. Pizza Box is a long way from the punky bluegrass of the Bad Livers, and may be the best album Barnes has ever made.
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AllMusic Review by j. poet