If you know the Lonetones mainly as the good-natured and obliging string band that's always happy and capable to fill an early slot in a modest festival's bill, you won't have much clue about their albums, especially their latest. The band's always worth a listen, live, and can do traditional when called upon. In the studio, the Lonetones turn into a musically and technically adventurous band, as fresh as any local band in 2013.
Modern Victims is a bright combination of sounds and styles from a surprising consortium that includes the Lonetones themselves, several talented friends, and more than a dozen instruments. It sounds, at several turns, like smart alt-pop. If a band of 24 year olds with just the right hats and beards came out with this release, we might be looking for it on the pop charts, catching a ride on the neo-Americana wave that's been recombining itself every few weeks.
The Lonetones' musical sophistication surely owes something to Sean McCollough's day job as a professional ethnomusicologist. He plays a swarming rock electric guitar on one track, "Alone," then opens the next one, "Shame," with a clawhammer banjo riff that might have been borrowed from a 1920s 78. (He also plays mandolin and keyboards.) But most of the songs—eight and a half of the disc's 13—are written by McCollough's wife/collaborator Steph Gunnoe, whose unusual high, vulnerable voice is one of the band's hallmarks, and, on this recording, especially hypnotic. As a songwriter, she's abstract and dreamy—a contrast to McCollough's more straightforward lyrics about mountaintop removal, idealism, and Steph herself. Swapping frontperson duties over and over, yin and yang, they don't duet much, which may be a good idea. The contrast in their voices, between McCollough's husky growl and Gunnoe's songbird soprano, offers some hint of what would happen if Jewel had joined the Crash Test Dummies.
String-band purists will waste no time taking this one back to Disc Exchange. The title track is a rap song, co-written and performed, with astonishing congruence, by Black Atticus. Then there's some brass, played with Bacharach-ish minimalism here and there. The final track, "Old Lady Industry," shows touches of psychedelia, even "Walrus"-era Beatles. That's one of two songs noted to have vibraphone contributions from Phil Pollard, the demonic percussionist whose Band of Humans enthralled Knoxville for several years before his sudden death in 2011. The album is dedicated to the memory of Pollard, who often collaborated with the Lonetones, and this album demonstrates what he saw in them.
Others on the lineup include guitarist Kevin Abernathy, drummer Jon Whitlock, Kyle Campbell on horns, and violinist Seth Hopper (on trumpet, of course). Rounding out the Lonetones proper are regulars Maria Williams on bass, Steve Corrigan on drums, and Cecelia Blair Miller on cello. It's a collaboration like no other, and each cut is a bracing surprise.