Michael Barnett is a fiddler who, while young, has done a lot. He’s a prodigy, more or less, becoming a sought after teacher and session musician at a very young age. He was a member of the David Grisman Sextet, and otherwise has turned the ear of a who’s who of acoustic music. The album is packed with some of them, including Aoife O’Donovan, David Grier, Sarah Jarosz, Tim O’Brien, Noam Pikelny, Maeve Gilchrist, Chris Eldridge … there is enough talent here to make your head spin.
But this album presents another side of Barnett that, until now, hasn’t been apparent: his songwriting. It’s repetitive, quirky, and entirely uninteresting. “Dig, Dig, Dig” is a lovely swing piece, though the words are nonsense, and not in the good way. “Jabberwocky” is nonsense in the good way—it sounds like nothing, at least at face value, yet for whatever reason is full of inescapable meaning. It’s charming, moving jibberish. “Dig, Dig, Dig” on the other hand, is really jibberish. It’s about a shovel digging into a person’s brain, and finding sombreros and “silly things, like Belgian waffles.” You can imagine some twenty somethings sitting around giggling about this stuff, but are Belgian waffles silly? Not really. The lyric is a string of non sequiturs simply for the sake of it. The vocal harmonies aren’t great either. The piece would have worked brilliantly and delightfully as an instrumental. Too bad he didn’t leave it at that.
Elsewhere, too, the writing is cringeworthy. Tim O’Brien provides the lead vocal on two of the tracks here, “Little Darlin’” and “Change Her Mind.” It jars particularly because O’Brien is such an expert writer, though here is singing the kind of lyric that you’d find scrawled on a high-school student’s binder. I imagine O’Brien would defend the writing—what else could he do now that it’s out there—but it’s hard not to feel a bit embarrassed for him. Barnett sings, too, and has a nice voice, though there is more to writing than simply saying things. “It Wasn’t Meant to be That Way,” finds him on lead vocal morning the loss of puppy love as if it were the romance of the century.
The best pieces are the instrumental ones, such that we wish the entire album was instrumental. Though, even there, not all the instrumental tracks are equally successful. “Hopped the Train to Hudson” is a lot of flash, yet never really roots itself. “Raindrops and Puddles” is a chance for Barnett to channel Eric Satie, but only really makes you want to go find some Satie. “Bottom of the Barrel” on the other hand is a delightful swing piece, easily a stand-out here.
Ultimately, however, this album is alienating. We find ourselves in a room full of people who know each other and yet we are left to stand in the corner trying to make sense of all the in jokes. It’s Barnett’s first album, and no doubt he’s a very important and impressive presence in the world of acoustic music. But, to really hear what he can do, it would have been preferable to hear his interpretation of other peoples pieces, some standards included, and leave the writing for later. He’s trying to sound wise, and fails.