DOSE • Red Rooster
There are two things that many artists wish for after completing an album. First, they wish they could do it over again, because now that they've done it, they could do it better. Second, they wish they could put at least one other version of each song on the album to show more of its many facets. Some artists actually do re-record albums they've just finished because they're not satisfied with them. And because they have lots of money. Very few, though, chase the latter wish, either because it's too much work, seems too self-indulgent or gimmicky, or maybe they just don't think they can pull it off.
Enter Red Rooster and their two-disc project Dose. CD 1 features ten songs all done with some variation of the full-band-and-then-some treatment. It's a great big stew of blues and pop and bluegrass and ethnic (think Mexicali and Klezmer) and "hick-hop" (sort of the Americana man's hip-hop) simmering over an urban fire. CD 2 offers up the same ten songs in dramatically different settings--all acoustic, tempos and approaches altered, much more "back porch" to use the title of the band's first release. The second of the two-CD set harkens back to that first album and the band's beginnings in roots-folk.
This New York City-based duo of Jay Erickson and Nat Zilkha has come a long way since that first album. They've picked up a bevy of instrumentalists to help them realize the much more ambitious and intriguing vision of Dose. Clarinet, french horn, turntable, piano, electric guitar and Hammond M3 (among others) join the more down home sounds of acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle and stand-up bass. The first CD uses any and all sounds, instruments and technologies available to the band to flesh out the edgier, more fiery versions of the songs. The premise of CD 2 is that they can only use sounds that can be transmitted acoustically through a mic.
As daring and interesting an idea as two recordings of the same material is, it all rests on the strength of the songs, for with weak material the concept just dissolves into gimmick. A bad song is a bad song, regardless of how many ways you interpret it. Luckily, Red Rooster delivers ten well-written, compelling songs easily strong enough to stand up to reinterpretation. Highlights include "Sharp Dressed Man", which on CD 1 is an electric blues burner, but becomes the sad plaint of a doomed man on acoustic guitar with the sympathetic moan of a fiddle on CD 2, and "The Cold Ground" which undergoes a similarly dramatic transformation. On the first CD it's a kind of electric country hootenany, while on CD 2 it's a powerful gospel chant given flesh only by a chorus of voices and body percussion. In general, the second CD explores the more tender, poignant sides of the songs, a boon, since these lyrics bear examining in that light. If, however, you're in the mood for something a little more rocking, fire up CD 1. (We've included some side-by-side clips on the Listen page.)
Erickson's deep voice has undergone a maturing since Back Porch, it seems. Always pleasant, on Dose it's more complex with a broader emotional range. But then, the material would demand that. A welcome addition to the vocal landscape of this record is the lovely voice of singer songwriter Charlotte Kendrick. Her light, silky voice complements Erickson's deep brown beautifully and she breathes magic into the song "Dreams" singing lead vocals on Disc 1's version.
According to the liner notes, in the course of making Dose, Red Rooster asked philosophical questions like "what makes a song a song?" and "how far can you stretch a song while keeping the heart of it intact?" While these are interesting questions, in the end, when all the exploration and stretching and asking are done, one question remains, one question matters. Does the album work, does it have soul? Dose does. • Judith Edelman
great cd cover design by stuart rogers