Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Charm City Devils Revive Some Sorrow

When Baltimore-based Charm City Devils debuted in 2009 with Let's Rock-N-Roll, they were named best new rock band by iTunes. I don't know how that happened. I heard the album, and didn't hear that.

The straight-up Eighties throwback sound was decent but not very memorable, except Best Of The Worst, maybe. It wasn't that they were bad, and most gave them more props for their live shows. Yet, the album just didn't connect as a hard-wrapped recast of SR-71. And that wasn't nearly enough.

Their upcoming album, SINS, promises to be very different. Frontman John Allen says it is chock full of songs people can relate to and they ante up the power. As for inspiration, he tapped the experiences and emotions captured on tour — something that has been both up and down for the band.

The Man Of Constant Sorrow shows powered-up potential.

The first single proves that there is something better brewing for Charm City Devils on their sophomore album. Taking a page from some of the better rock bands of that era, Allen and the band turned to folk for inspiration and settled in on one of the most covered songs of all times.

Just a few dramatically adapted covers of the Man Of Constant Sorrow across every genre include: Bob Dylan, David Grisman with Gerry Garcia and Tony Rice, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Age Of Vipers, The Soggy Bottom Boys (for O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and The Rolling Stones (indirectly). And yet, Allen and company manage to rearrange it all and come up with a cover that is uniquely their own.

It's a much dirtier, gritty and authentic sound for Allen, one that gives Charm City Devils much more pick up than anything from their debut. According to Allen, he and album producer Skidd Mills (Saving Abel, Egypt Central) built a foundation from the O Brother base, and then tweaked and recast the timeless song into something more modern.

There is no question they own this rendition, never mind that the song is more than 100 years old. Even the artist who originally recorded it with the title "The Farewell Song" (Dick Burnett in 1913) wasn't sure how much of the song was his and how much of it belonged to someone else. (It is clear he embellished a good amount, incorporating his blindness into the song).

The Stanley Brothers, who revived an Emry Arthur version in 1951, guessed it was much older. In his autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, Arthur said it was probably two or even three hundred years old. In fact, it was this amazing sense of timelessness that attracted Allen to the song.

"It was an incredibly powerful song but it was a challenge to arrange it in a way that captured the essence of the song but would also rock," he said. "The song transcends generations."

One of the earliest versions proves the point. Arthur originally recorded his version in 1928.

If the Charm City Devils have loaded up their next album with as much thoughtfulness and harder, edgier tones like Allen said, then the album will be a keeper. The band has never sounded better than on this track, with Vic Karrera (guitar), Anthony Arambula (bass), Nick Kay (guitar), and Jason Heiser (drums).

The Man Of Constant Sorrow By Charm City Devils Nails 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Charm City Devils have a lot on their side with the release of their sophomore album. After touring with bands like Alice In Chains and Guns N Roses, picking up Mills as a producer, and Allen saying he laid in his own internal conflict, there will be something there. The Man Of Constant Sorrow is convincing, and shows how recording with a single producer can make a big difference.

The Man Of Constant Sorrow by Charm City Devils is up on iTunes, without a B-side. You can also find Man of Constant Sorrow on Amazon. Although the track from O Brother is probably among the most popular, Dr. Ralph Stanley's recording of the song will remain a favorite.
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