Polecat Creek,
Salt Sea Bound
(Yodel-Ay-Hee, 2001)

Listen to this album all the way through at least once. Don't even look at the CD jacket first. Salt Sea Bound sounds like a compilation album of authentic Appalachian music, doesn't it? Well, yes it does, but no it's not. I was pleasantly surprised that 13 of the 14 songs on this album are original. Usually there are some subtle clues either in the instruments or the lyrics that give away that it's an homage album. But you know, Polecat Creek is just that good at creating a pure Appalachian sound. (I shouldn't be surprised, though; hailing from North Carolina, it must be in their blood.)

Salt Sea Bound follows the true spirit of Appalachian music by fusing interesting narratives with accessible instrumentation. This quintet treats each song as its own story, from the content to the pace to the choice of instruments. The narrative is provided through the well-matched vocals of Laurelyn Dossett and Kari Sickenberger. In all but one a cappella song, Riley Baugus, Steve Block and David Bailey provide background vocals and selective accompaniment to showcase the ladies' twangy vocals. All too often, instrumentalists aren't given enough attention for their ability to avoid attention.

The title track is a great example of the coordinated effort of the vocals and instruments. Note Riley's controlled rhythmic strumming to emphasize the varying vocal speeds. "Take Me Down" buzzes in your ear to get your attention, levels off to welcome you in and then keeps you. In "Spirits in the Bottle Trees," an excellent slide guitar instantly sets the mood and creates the framework for this dramatic lament. "Surry County's Burning" and "Good Night" are other nice instances of the quintet's vocal and instrumental compatibility.

With all this talk of narrative and compatibility, there's one flaw -- the whole album. Each song is a gem, but Salt Sea Bound has the feel of a compilation album. There is so much intention in the style and choice of instruments in every song that I would expect the same intentions in the grouping of those songs. There's no sense of linkage among the tracks. For example, the intensely morose "The Bottomland" is followed by the light-hearted, cheery "Bluebird." In the course of six minutes and ten seconds you go from the depths of despair to praising the sunlight. In this one example the mood shift is nearly toxic, but in other cases the effect is not as stark.

So, the whole album isn't quite a "whole" but a collection of great songs -- a minor flaw. Fortunately, Polecat Creek's talents in each song easily overshadow this one flaw.

- Rambles
written by C. Nathan Coyle
published 15 March 2003