All over Low Country Suite you hear sounds of a band that, while still underpinned by the rippling acoustics, whining Dobro and banjo of past albums, has taken a huge “next step” with their songwriting. Unencumbered by any lingering compulsion to sound traditional or stay within the lines, King Wilkie indulges its honkytonking impulses on the drunken bar brawl of “Angeline” and the Band meets Neil Young roots-rocking of “Crazy Daisy (Don’t You Fade On Me.)”
It takes more than a little confidence to open an album with a song like “The Raising Of The Patriarchs.” It doesn’t demand your attention or stamp its sonic foot. It’s slow, hypnotic, and altogether somber — and a beautiful tune, easily demonstrating where it is King Wilkie can take bluegrass instrumentation in the service of a song. The mandolin doesn’t chop away. Rather, it fills and swoops like a tiny, echo-laden harp. “Sparse” is the order of the day here, and the end result is that those few, carefully chosen notes from the piano have enormous weight behind them. Once “Wrecking Ball” kicks in it’s a different story. This is a potent piece of bluesy mountain stomp, driven by a churning riff made of intricately picked and arranged banjo, acoustic guitar and mandolin.
Echoes of Wilco’s earlier, most mellow moments, Gram Parsons and the loony earnestness of the Gourds can be heard through much of Low Country Suite, but for the most part King Wilkie has found a real voice of its own here. The tense drama and terse flatted-fifth crunch of “Stone & Steel” makes it an easy pick for creepiest track, but it’s also a personal favorite. And you can forgive the sometimes strained vocals of “Oh My Love” in favor of the lush, melancholic bed of harmony the band lays down beneath a tale of love’s twilight.
The band’s reinvented approach also reveals multi-instrumentalist Reid Burgess as a real “secret weapon,” allowing him to stretch his wings by peppering all eleven tracks with varying shades of mandolin, ukulele, organ and piano, as well as sharing vocal duties with guitarist/vocalist John McDonald.
Low Country Suite, though it has a few “up” moments, is a mostly reflective, thoughtful affair by a group of musicians that looked within themselves and found a sound. While not a complete knockout of an album, it does have more than a few potent songs in its midst, and the sense of depth and space these guys have carved out is nothing short of refreshing compared to the “more more more” intensity and misguided traditionalism found in much of the alt-country genre. If this is an indication of things to come for King Wilkie, the next disc should be something truly amazing. Good stuff.