Slack Press

Style Weekly Magazine, March 2003

Slack Family “Pickin’ Up the Slack” (Planetary) ****

From the first thumping stand-up bass notes and rousing harmonies to the closing notes some 43 minutes later, the Slack Family’s newest traditional bluegrass release is mostly top-drawer stuff. The boys rely on wood and steel to present a sound that’s tasty, sincere and fun. Guitarist Joe Wharff does most of the lead singing and he carries things off in a solid, unaffected way. Andy Burns shines on mandolin throughout. Fiddle player Jim Skelding glides through his solos with ear-catching dexterity, and Nick Harlow’s banjo jump-starts one of the set’s highlights, “Sincerely Leaving You.” Brian Sulser’s steady bass underpinning propels each tune with confidence. The band throws in wonderful harmony singing and, overall, the project is mixed so a listener can hear each instrument and voice clearly.

Nine of the 15 tunes were written by the band, but both originals and covers consistently work on a number of levels. One of the best of the set is the Slack Family’s cover of “Ready For the Time.” It’s a tender tune handled with appropriate care. “The Wilderness” pays worthy and quick-tempo tribute to Rebel soldiers long gone. “Fergus County Jail” tells the story about the poor boy in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Skelding’s fine fiddle gently captures the graceful heartbreak of “Chloe.” There’s a snappy little tempo change in “Shout Out” that really pumps the tune up and “Mem’ries I Can’t Remember” is an upbeat tale of misguided choices that showcases the lightning fingers of the band members.

The only clinker is Townes Van Zandt’s great tune “White Freightliner Blues” or “White Freightliner” as listed here. Somehow the boys don’t catch the sorrow evoked by the song in choosing to play it as a simple traveling tale. It’s too quick, clipped and clean. But that’s a small quibble. The other songs ring with truth and honesty and as a unit this band plays together seamlessly.

Nothing here gets in the way of the songs and each of these talented players knows when to jump in and jump out. “Pickin’ Up the Slack” is a first-rate pickin’ and singin’ party.

Ames Arnold

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