Makers of records – of albums – agonize over track sequence as over a Supreme Court appointment or, at the very least, the buying of a new mattress. A certain weight of posterity and determinism, of roads diverging into obscure yellow woods, hangs over the decision. To people on the outside of your skull, the fuss may seem disproportionate to the actual stakes, but the people inside your skull know that it is not.
You might sequence your record for your ideal listener, privileging the flow, the segues and the progressions of a beginning-to-end, album-as-journey experience of the kind that sucked you into this fool’s pursuit in the first place. Your ideal listener is going to sit and listen to the whole thing multiple times, eyes closed, ears wide open; she is going to attend its movements and note its themes as they blossom; she is going to begin listening to your record with the same willing credulity, patience and positive assumption that she brings to her label-authenticated and famous favorites when they release new music. She isn’t real, but you can’t have everything.
Or you might heed what your Bandcamp stats are telling you: Most people don’t make it past the ten-percent mark of your first track. Getting someone safely in the door – grabbing them by the virtual lapels and yelling, “Chill the f*ck out and let me work, you skittish, overstimulated, millennial bumblebee!” – is the only priority; what happens after that is up to your tunes.
You consult your trusted advisors and industry connections and gain a consensus on which among your tracks are the grabbers. Often, they’re not your favorites; often, in fact, they are the outliers, the least-representative songs and the ones that you thought of as playacting or throwaways. Your personal picks and secret-heart gems fall down the track list, their pleasures the reward for anyone who gets that far. Ten percent. Jesus H. Christ. Every listener is his own market these days.
It all seems to ride on Track One, Word One, Sound One. It is too much weight for any song to bear. Why even make a peep? There is no one best track, no best foot forward. Some of us just can’t make the call; why, I began one of my band’s recent records with a stupid skit, the next with 60 seconds of on-hold music just to put off the question. The New Paltz-based, five-piece original bluegrass and folk ensemble In the Kitchen begins their debut full-length Almost Almost There with about five seconds of a dude giggling. Take that, Mr. Radio Man.
It’s a mad, unstable giggle, and dangerous: not all that far off from Jigglypuff’s signature vocalization in Super Smash Bros. I, for one, think it has hit potential.
When the giggle settles, the propulsive snare groove and chugging acoustic drive of Ryan Reutershan’s “Song in My Head” emerges. That snare pattern – some of us call it the “train groove” – is In the Kitchen’s default feel, from which they often stray and to which they always return. This train is conducted with both locomotion and great, song-sensitive handling and restraint by the ace New Paltz poly-roots rhythm section of Roger LaRochelle (drums) and Pete Newman (double bass), the duo that makes the engine go in Sekanjabin (belly dancing ethno-fusion), the Jonny Monster Band (doctrinal blues and blues/rock), Dr. Awesome (indie-pop), the Dreambats (post-rock) and many other New Paltz-centered outfits of the last decade. Kinda nice to begin your story with a rhythm section that is locked in like twins.
Reutershan’s songs aim for and routinely achieve a kind of timeless, oracular quality that makes them traditional but not retro. He sings with an eccentric authority somewhere between outlaw and Biblical, supported in the very thoughtful diction of his lyrics, which mostly concern his own regrets and yearnings and the ambivalence of fortune. His songs are full of roads and bridges that aren’t actually roads and bridges; they are time and decisions. Tightly crafted, evocative winners abound: My favorite among favorites might be the alternately waltzy and swinging “Nocturnal Hearts,” a secret-heart gem buried down amongst the album tracks for those who got that far.
As the name suggests, this is a true acoustic band arranged in a semicircle, a gather-around-one-microphone-for-the-folks-at-home joint. In the role of second songwriter and second shredder is mandolinist Benjy Bruno, whose simple-and-sweet songs are less intricately personal than Reutershan’s, but just as metaphorical. The chief shredder, in a genre that requires a good one, is the lyrical and ready-to-roll violinist Evan Shultis, whose willing fluidity ties everything to everything else in Reutershan’s bluegrass spiritual travelogues.
Almost Almost There is an unassuming winner: unfailingly sturdy and openhearted songs, rock-energized bluegrass propulsion in a no-fuss setting, sweet licks and a gang-chant communal approach to singing by some dudes who maybe didn’t pass the choir audition in high school. The music belongs to the modern/traditional model of roots music, which is to say that it sounds timeless but involves no stylized costumes or period ruses, preferring to emphasize the evergreen values of folk rather than its historical otherness.
See for yourself on Friday, November 18, when In the Kitchen celebrates the release of Almost Almost There at the San Severia Spiegeltent in the back room at BSP, located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. Kindred spirits will be joining In the Kitchen for the festivities: first, Joe McNulty, then New Paltz’s great folk eccentrists Yard Sale. The music begins at 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.bspkingston.com.
In the Kitchen record release show, Yard Sale/Joe McNulty, Friday, November 18, 8 p.m., BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston.