Black Jake & the Carnies

Where the Heather Don't Grow

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Black Jake & the Carnies are a curious octet out of Ypsilanti, MI, who specialize in a kind of raucous acoustic Americana that tosses postmodern Appalachian murder ballads, Irish drinking songs, skewed and twisted love songs, and general cautionary tales into a stylistic blender that has them sounding like nothing so much as a maverick, hopped-up punk polka band in full 21st century everything-fits jug band mode. The band itself calls what it does "crabgrass," but although the instrumentation (banjo, guitar, mandolin, acoustic bass, etc.) suggests bluegrass, the approach is something else again, and the supplementary instruments, which include washboard, train whistle, jug, and all manner of odd percussion toys, make the Carnies something closer to a manic jug and string band from the previous century. Then there are the songs, which sound old and ancient but aren't, and which sound upbeat and joyous, but aren't, detailing instead a world full of death, murders, killings, and all manner of intentional and unintentional mayhem. That the Carnies make all this go down like a Saturday night house party gone into overdrive is the real charm of their debut album. The songs themselves are all of a piece and listening to the eerie but still strangely comforting "Hunter's Moon," the explosive "Paper Outlaw," the wild, fiddle-driven "Bone Man," and the truly epic ten-minute title track, "Where the Heather Don't Grow," is a bit like stepping through the looking glass. Things seem normal, but they decidedly aren't. Recorded by Jim Roll in his Ann Arbor living room, Where the Heather Don't Grow has an infectious and ragged immediacy about it, and while some bizarre and twisted stories are flying by in the lyrics, it's all so vibrant and full-tilt that one can't help but smile. Dark stories never played so bright.

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