I wanted to love this album, and I’m having a hard time with it even now, because saying something negative about it is akin to sacrilege. Trischka has always been the focus of a lot of praise, and the liner notes by Bela Fleck that accompany this disc continue in that vein. For the most part, Trischka truly deserves all the praise he gets. His playing is unique, and he is one of the people who, out of nothing more than a faith and passion in the instrument, chose to devote his life to proving that the banjo ought to be taken seriously. That’s true on this release, too. He approaches the instrument, and his audience, with unerring sophistication. (He’s also been one of the drivers behind two recent projects celebrating the instrument, first his release “Territory” and the concerts that the album came out of, and the PBS documentary “Give Me the Banjo.” I also know, having tried to broker an interview between him and Jens Kruger, who I was working for at the time, that he is absolutely gracious and generous with his time.)
But this release comes with so many red carpets and built-in hyperbole that you’ll feel bullied into liking it. No doubt, critics will rave, if only because it feels odd saying anything bad about something that Bela Fleck feels is so good, or that includes so many truly fantastic musicians. The list of contributors is vast—you hear 33 performers, including Oscar-winning actors, dancers, electric guitars, a cello banjo, harp, flute, drums, spoken word, dancing ducks, seven lead vocalists, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. There is a core band, as well as some fantastic players who won’t get star billing simply because they are outshone by John Goodman, such as Mike Compton, Russ Barenberg, Todd Philips, Noam Pikelny, and others.
Over the course of just 13 tracks, none of them gets much real estate. It’s a lot of cameos without a lead. Trischka likes weird, though perhaps he hasn’t had a chance prior to truly indulge himself. This, apparently, is the opportunity he’s been waiting for—there are lots of non-sequitors, most of it at the hands of Elliott and Goodman in the baffling “Wild Bill Hickock.” Earlier on the disc the dancing ducks introduce a suite of melodies, each of them played on a single string of the banjo. There are five movements because there are five strings to the banjo. I got that much. The only thing I don’t understand is why. It’s a kind of parlor trick that Trischka seems a bit chuffed at pulling off—he’s mentioned the difficulty of this kind of thing in interviews—but unless you can see him actually playing it, you’ve missed the tricky bit.
Ultimately it is indeed a very big world, and with Trischka in the lead, it feels like we’re lost within it after dark without a flashlight, a map, or any sense of direction. In isolation there are some very nice moments on this disc, but there is nothing that roots them together. It’s, wall to wall, a room full of strangers. Between the flights of fancy, we get a few nods to the tradition, though they are as incongruous as everything else. “Do Re Mi” is a song that has been done to death, and reads as little more than a tribute to a great songwriter, Woody Guthrie. Still, the message of the song is hard (and perhaps impossible) to deliver in a way that makes it feel at all relevant to us today. Here, as elsewhere, it’s little more than a museum piece. Museums are fine, but this album isn’t meant to be one, clearly, and how he ever arrived at this particular song for inclusion is a head scratcher. (He’s been involved in a tribute to Guthrie, so perhaps it was just something close to hand.)
“Angelina Baker” is a nice song written by Stephen Foster more than 150 years ago. We rarely hear the words these days—it’s more commonly played as a fiddle tune though, as in a game of broken telephone, the melody has strayed over the years to the point that the words can’t be sung to it. In any case, it’s a nice idea to present the words, which many people are likely hearing for the first time (though some of the choices here are puzzling … the words too have been altered over the years, and anyway … well, it’s a long story). In the right hands the song can deliver a profound narrative of loss despite the passing years and changing contexts from when it was written. Here, however, it’s fractured and show-offy, and the narrative—one of a slave being separated from his love through the trade of human chattel—is lost entirely. Maeve Gilchrist’s voice and harp on “Ocracoke Lullaby,” are lovely, though she comes so entirely out of blue that it’s akin to finding a sapphire in a bowl of ice cream. (Didn’t expect that!) Two tracks later, on “Joy,” we land in the middle of an electric gospel tune. (Or that!)
But, yes, writing this I feel like a grump, and I suspect that this might be the only bad review the album will get. I feel a bit like the Emperor Joseph noting that Mozart’s opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio” contained “too many notes.” (Then again, it’s not one of the famous operas, is it? Joseph might have had a point.) But the message of this album doesn’t really feel like a musical one. Rather, it feels like you’re in an apartment across the hall from a party that you weren’t invited to. You see the guests arriving, and it sounds like they’re having a lot of fun. When making “Great Big World,” no doubt they were. Too bad we weren’t invited.