A hoedown mood opens Oneside’s new album, signaling a shift away from the country jazz permeating their earlier work. New banjo player Chris Hersch picks out a spare figure, backed only by Ned deBary’s delicate acoustic guitar, then handclaps. The singer begins, and a kick drum roughs up “The Letter,” the first track on the Boston-based band’s new CD, “First, To Last.”
Then, as deBary wryly sings, “don’t tell me I’m going down the wrong path,” there’s a crackle of snare from drummer Jake Brooks, and the song is off and running. Within the short space of four minutes, Oneside moves across time, beginning at Cold Mountain and ending at the Moondog Show.
Oneside covers a lot of musical ground in “First, To Last.” “Oh Sun” is a spiritualized Americana rave-up, while a reworked “Got To Go” (the song appeared on an earlier EP) is a pure slice of country pie. “Lisa” suggests that someone in this band listened to a lot of Gram Parsons at one time or another. Since the entire band is given songwriting credit for each of the album’s 11 songs, it’s hard to know just who.
Anyone who says the long player is dead should listen to this, and think again. Apart from one desultory instrumental (“Four Corners”), there’s not a wasted moment here. Standout tracks include the jazzy “Out of My Tree” and “Josephine,” a roiling murder ballad that’s evocative of Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.”
The band produced itself, and they show off their studio talents on “Into the Night,” which starts small and ends big. “Our Song” is a guardedly optimistic ode to the musician’s life. The interplay between the four band members – deBary, Hersch, Brooks and bassist Grafton Pease, is stunning. No one element dominates, and what results is a gorgeous balance of flourish and restraint. “Feel the song from both sides,” sings DeBary, and indeed they do.
The record’s tour de force is “Last Radio,” a darker look at the musical profession. The song metaphorically buries what’s left of the business, and waits to see what grows.
“Put your ear to the ground,” they sing, “listen a million miles down, hear a brand new sound, melodies escaping.” As the Band and the Grateful Dead did, along with their modern disciples Wilco and Son Volt, Oneside is setting out to mine the deep.
Like those bands, they’ve burned their maps and manuals, preferring to work on instinct.
Or perhaps a better analogy can be found in the kitchen, where the trick is reconstructing familiar ingredients in new, inventive ways. Oneside has stepped away from being Bela Fleck acolytes to charting a different course. With this effort, Oneside distills a long American musical history into its pure essence.
Oneside plays Friday at Salt hill Pub in Lebanon. Show starts at 9 PM.