American String Conspiracy,
Help the Poor
(Avenue A, 2013)

The New York City-based American String Conspiracy has been around since 2003 and, according to its artist bio, intends to create original songs drawing inspiration from blues, country, folk, jazz, pop, rock 'n' roll, gospel and whatever else sounds good on stringed instruments.

That mission statement accounts for everything that is good and everything that misses the mark with the band on its new album, Help the Poor.

The good stuff first. The members of American String Conspiracy can play. Ernie Vega's mandolin charms, and Suzanne Davenport's bowed string instruments -- violin and cello -- contribute solidly to the arrangements. Her fiddle soars like a eagle over and above the vocals, creating an interesting mix. The various guitars, slide guitars and dobros all push the songs along, and when Ernie Vega doubles on harmonica, he plays the happiest harp you've heard in a long time. Gary Keenan's lead voice suits this material. He growls as much as sings with a tone that is dark and smoky. His isn't a great pop voice but, of course, if Justin Timberlake is your idea of a great singer, then you've got no business listening to the American String Conspiracy anyway. Keenan might not a great voice, but he has a great voice for this band.

So what's the problem? The Conspiracy's mission statement. Their originals stick too closely to the originals that inspired them. As you listen, you often get the feeling you've heard the song before even when you haven't. "Leave It Alone," for example, has a chorus that reminds you of half a dozen other songs, while "Never Too Late" lifts the chord structure of "Knocking in Heaven's Door" directly. So even on first listening, there's a sense of familiarity to the record, a sense that rather than being inspired by the older forms of Americana music, the American String Conspiracy are still too influenced by them.

This is a band that is going to be important when they finish working out their influences and allow themselves to emerge completely.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

6 April 2013

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