Jim White vs The Packway Handle Band
Take It Like A Man
3.5 out of 5 stars
The concept of artists reaching outside their usual genres to collaborate with others is nothing new. From Lou Reed working with Metallica and dozens of rap/rock mashups best typified by Aerosmith and Run DMC, these partnerships serve to inspire restless musicians to try something different, or perhaps more crassly, make themselves more visible to another audience as Kid Rock’s forays into country succeeded in doing. Some like Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello have made cottage industries out of their multiple hookups with others outside their comfort zones.
All of this is to say that, despite this album’s combative title, the blending of roots poet/Southern surrealist Jim White with the straight ahead bluegrass of the Packway Handle Band isn’t exactly a groundbreaking collision of musical minds. White’s darkly humorous, evocative lyrical excursions over restrained country/folk backing on five albums since 1997 have earned him well deserved critical favor yet little more than a devoted cult following. Likewise, Packway Handle’s decade of creative, predominantly traditionally based jubilant picking hasn’t resulted in arena sized audiences. The union of these talents, both conveniently located in Athens, GA., is a shrewd move, both artistically and commercially.
Push play and it doesn’t take long to hear how White’s literate, skewed humor and PH’s rootsy bluegrass graft together. The album’s opening lyrics, “He lost his job after 18 years/when a big tornado carried him away,” describe a characteristically twisted concept that bears White’s signature eccentricity. While the disc splits the song’s authorship evenly, it’s clear that the spirited bluegrass backing works to push the sometimes melancholy White into more upbeat musical waters. Conversely, his often offbeat, edgy words give the PH quintet something more substantial to chew on. That’s especially the case on the peppy singalong “Not a Song” and when White redoes his own “Jim 3:16” to get his “a bar is just a church where they serve beer” chorus the energetic country backing it always deserved.
Both trade lead vocals but since White has the more recognizable name, and also produced the project, Take it Like a Man bears more of his absurdist influence, which is a good thing. The rousing, rearranged closing “Sinner” taps into both White’s oblique gothic/religious past (the one that birthed his controversial “God Was Drunk When He Made Me”) and Packway’s more respectful approach to the gospel chestnut.
While this may only be a one-off alliance, these artists will hopefully continue to follow the threads started here and expand their musical and lyrical boundaries on future projects, either together or apart.
Let’s campaign for a rematch.