Written on December 29, 2006
Artist: The Recipe
Jubilee is an album with a history, both public and private. The Recipe were the last group associated with the jamband scene that I followed before finally deciding that, for the sake of my own personal growth, I needed to make a total break with the scene. Even then, while it wasn’t difficult for me to leave the larger scene, I never fully walked away from the Recipe. Every couple of months or so I’d poke my head in at their web site and see what they were up to and see if there were any local shows. When I finally decided that perhaps I’d hit a point where I could start to think about returning to the jamband scene, The Recipe were the first group that I downloaded from archive.org.
When I left The Recipe scene, the band was just beginning work on this album. And I can’t help but notice that the album was only released after I had come back into the fold. I’ll stop myself before wondering if there’s any connection there, though it is an interesting synchronicity.
As I said, the group has been working on Jubilee for sometime. This is in fact their first studio album since the release of Geode back in 2000. And the band has been through a number of changes since then. First came the loss of original female vocalist, Kristin Wolverton, who was later replaced by Julie Edlow. Then they lost their fiddle player, Hannah Ross. After a period of dropping the fiddle for multi-instrumentalist Kris Kehr, the band eventually brought on Melissa McGinley as their new fiddle player and banjo player Ed ‘Uncle Eddie’ Mahonen. Somewhere in there Julie left, was replaced, came back, and then left again. Melissa took over Julie’s vocal duties after the last time she left before making her own departure. There’s also a couple of bass players in there (at least two that I can think of off the top of my head, Mike Vitale and Q) but the Recipe has always had a problem with keeping bass players.
I mention this sorted history because it does play a role in the album that we eventually received. Through out all of these changes the band stopped and started the process of recording this album. Scrapping tracks when players left and then rerecording them when their replacements showed up. More then once fans were told from the stage that the album was ‘almost here’ only to have someone decide to leave the group, pushing the album back yet again. The very fact that the album has been released at all is a minor accomplishment and likely a weight off the band’s shoulders. They have finally moved beyond the curse of Jubilee and can now focus on the future.
Reviewing the album for me is kind of hard. Many of these songs made their debut during my hey day with the group, and many hours were spent wondering what they would sound like on the album, especially the center piece of the album, the song cycle Davie’s Jubilee. Geode, their last studio album, was the band’s first attempt at making an album that was more of a studio album. Hannah Ross put together a string quartet for one or two songs and Joe Prichard, the band’s primary song writer, guitarist, and male vocalist, definitely seemed to be having fun tweaking the album to make it sound perfect. The expectation was that Jubilee would continue that progression and the songs that we were hearing live at the time, definitely seemed like likely fodder for such experimentation.
The album we got instead is a stripped down collection of songs. To these untrained ears, the extent of the studio trickery seems to be Joe harmonizing with himself on a couple of instrument overdubs. While there are a few places where this approach falls down, for the most part it was the right choice. The Recipe are a group from West Virginia, and sure their lead singer is a self avowed Beatles freak, but at their core, they are still a group that is steeped in the traditions of Appalachia.
People today think of Appalachia as a mono-cultural wasteland of bluegrass, moonshine, and hillbillies. What they fail to realize is that Appalachian culture is a synthesis of the various cultures of poor immigrants who moved into the mountains to work in the mines. It is a highly adaptive culture that isn’t easily over taken by modern trends. Instead it consumes those trends, mutating and changing them until they are something uniquely Appalachian.
The Recipe are carriers of this tradition. Taking a love of 60s pop, roots rock & roll, and the fertile local traditional music scene; and creating something that is uniquely their own. The Recipe sound combines the free wheeling, anything goes, feel of a back woods picking party, with songs that come to mean something and are taken to heart by their fan base. They are proof that a good time party band doesn’t need to be devoid of substance and meaning.
Jubilee is a testament to this ability. Full of songs that can easily move the listener to dance around the room. The album also contains the band’s most poignant work to date.
As I mentioned, the center piece of the album is the song cycle, Davie’s Jubilee. With words provided by Joe’s father Phil Prichard. The piece revolves around the death of a much loved local fiddle player in Vietnam, and what comes afterwards.
The cycle opens with the song Family Portrait. Here the unidentified narrator introduces us to Davie and tells us how much he was loved by the community of people who came to the Jubilee every year.
The cycle continues with Letters Home, where the narrator continues the story; telling us how Davie was a medic during Vietnam. We are told of his compassion for all life during the war and of his fears that he wouldn’t be able to make it back to his beloved mountains. It is also at this point that the piece first mentions Darlene, Davie’s ‘girl’, and his son Little Davie. The song ends with a somber military drum roll, signifying Davie’s death.
We are next brought forward several years with the song Playing In My Dreams. While here the song is song by Joe, the song was originally sung by the band’s female vocalist, underlining the fact that the story’s perspective has shifted to Darlene. Here she contemplates the similarities between Little Davie and his father, including a talent for playing the fiddle. She laments the fact that Davie never got a chance to see his boy grow up, sure that he would have been proud. The song’s title and chorus concern a fantasy of the two having the chance to play fiddle together.
Here the story takes a slight break for the traditional instrumental fiddle tune, Whiskey Before Breakfast.
We rejoin the story with the song Mountain Wedding Song. The story is picked up by a man who has fallen in love with Darlene. The song’s subject concerns the two falling in love, but also the question of how to explain this love to Little Davie.
Lyrically, the cycle is some of the best work in the band’s canon. And it is easy to see where Joe picked up his lyrical abilities. Musically though, the cycle is probably the band’s pinnacle at this point. Joe takes his father’s words and crafts around them a score that helps to bring out the nuances of the emotions which thread through out the greater piece. A traditional feel is used through out the piece to root it as a distinctly Appalachian story, but Joe uses other flourishes through out to the piece to really bring it home. From the hints of a military march at the end of Letters Home to signify Davie’s military funeral, to the fiddle heavy arrangement of Playing In My Dreams, to the wistful arrangement of Mountain Wedding Song. The entire piece points to a song writer who knows more about his craft then just coming up with a good hook. Thankfully, Melissa McGinley appears as a guest to play fiddle on this piece.
The focus on Davie’s Jubilee is not meant to diminish the quality of the other songs that are included on the album. It is interesting to listen to the album, since it gives the listener a glimpse into the refinement of the group as a whole over the last six years, and of Joe, in-particular, as a songwriter. Songs like Davie’s Jubilee (minus Playing In My Dreams, which came later) and Holy Dice debuted shortly after recording on Geode had completed, while songs like When The Snow Falls and Walk of Shame are much newer. There isn’t a marked difference in the quality of the songs, but there is a subtle shift towards tighter song writing.
Jubilee is easily the band’s most political album to date. The entire album is dedicated “to all persons and their families who have served their country in the military during times of war and peace. Politics aside, all we can and should say to those who have served is, Thank You.” More specifically, Shotgun Wedding, is an obvious comment on the current presidency and war. When The Snow Falls and The World Today are a more general commentaries on the state of the world today.
Even with the possibly negative subject matter of many of the songs on this album, the band retains a certain sense of optimism which only comes from being part of a larger tradition and realizing your place in it. Yes, things are bad now, but they have been bad in the past as well, and they will get better some day. The trick is to not get lost in all of it and retain your own sense of individuality.
While the album isn’t what I was expecting all those years ago, dancing away in strange clubs around the mid-atlantic region, it is a solid album. And the more I learn to put aside my expectations and approach the album on its own merits the better it gets. Full of good hooks, an optimistic vibe that doesn’t come from just ignoring the world around them, and a solid understanding of where they come from and the tradition that they are apart of, Jubilee is the band’s best album to date. Hopefully, now with the album finally out, the group can focus on delivering another album before 2012.
Oh, and just to cover my bases, for the fans who’ve been waiting for this release for the past 6 years. I apologies for any role my absence may have unintentionally played in delaying its release.
A quick glance around the web doesn’t turn up any links to samples of the songs on this album. The Recipe has given permission to archive.org through to archive their live performances for download. So, in lieu of being able to point you at the album directly, I’ll point you to a somewhat recent show (before Melissa left the band). You can find that show band, or through the Homegrown Music Network.