If you had told me ten years ago that “Ukulele Girls” would be a thing, I would have mentally filed your opinions in the category reserved for Y2K believers and Holocaust deniers. But mysteriously, the ukulele has become standard issue for hipster girls with clunky glasses, vintage style dresses, and awkwardly overwrought adorkableness.
Which, honestly, I don’t have a big problem with. I figure the more people creating art and music, the better place the world is. And I’ve loved the ukulele since seeing Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters play “Tonight You Belong to Me” in The Jerk (1979). Really…35 years ago, and that song is still goddamned magical. But to illustrate how ubiquitous the ukulele girl phenomenon is, searching for a video of the aforementioned song turned up Zooey Deschanel & Ben Schwartz playing the same song. Feel free to skip it, but Martin & Peters is well worth checking out.
This album is also well worth checking out, and not at all what I was expecting. Instead of quirky ukulele tunes with a paucity of full arrangements and at least a few covers of standards, Cunning Folk is packed with original songs more akin to front-porch blues with most of them featuring her full band, her Friends (With Benefits). Seriously. And not just the washboard, guitar, bass, and drums. I’m talking piano, strings, and horns. I’m still kind of amazed that this CD exists. And if I didn’t know better, I’d fight anyone who suggested it was an independent production.
Cunning Folk doesn’t sound like an independent effort. It’s goddamned accomplished. But it doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard out in the musical wasteland recently. The closest comparisons I can make would be the late, lamented Asylum Street Spankers from Austin, Texas. Though the musicianship is not as tight as the Spankers, that’s a damn high bar which leaves Kucharik and the Friends still well ahead of the pack. Kucharik’s voice even evokes the sultry strength of the Spanker’s Christina Marrs. Though the entirety of the band is rock solid, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention Ansel Barnum on harmonica who made me realize how much I missed hearing the instrument. Kudos.
It’s difficult for me to pick a weak track on Cunning Folk, though if fingers had to be pointed, it would probably have to be “Like a Boss,” which is unfortunate as that’s the first video that was created for the album. The song itself is perfectly competent, and fun. And absolutely filthy, packed with enough clever workplace sex innuendos to make the producers of office porn blush. Seriously, this song is straight up fuckin’ set to music without actually saying it. It just doesn’t feel as strong as the rest of the songs on the album. Perhaps it’s the over-reliance on innuendo that leaves the song feeling just slightly tongue in cheek. Once you’ve had the chuckle there isn’t quite enough spine to sustain it. But even so, it’s still a fun song and makes a nice transition piece between the opening track “Prodigal Son” and the black-magic tinged “Doesn’t Need to Know.”
In fact, you can almost interpret tracks 1-8 as the “Descent of the Wayward Daughter,” bluesy tunes drenched with sin while tracks 9 and 10 act as icing on an already delicious cake.
Take for example the opening verse of the rollicking front porch blues of the first track, “Prodigal Son” (with a lovely bass solo by Greg Toro and full accompaniment of guitar, washboard, accordion, drums, harmonica):
My grandma grew up in the Depression
That woman knew that life is hard
And whenever I’d complain that it just wasn’t fair
She’d tell me in Heaven’s where I’d get my reward
But Heaven seems like such a long way away,
And you’ve got no guarantees — it’s just faith
Well, here’s what I say: Let’s have some fun today,
And enjoy our Earthly pleasures just in case
And then contrast it with lyrics from track 8, the truly outstanding “The Snake” which opens with a string arrangement that evokes Eastern European folk music and layers in a full horn arrangement finished with Jeremy Valadez weaving sinuously through the arrangement on clarinet (sheer perfection, btw) :
Walked along a crevice in the road
Went all the way down to hell if I know
Met a truck with a devil at the wheel
And as he ran me down, he said, “I do not like the way you deal”
In between those two songs I felt a narrative, perhaps unintentional, of joyous hedonism and occasional regret. Kucharik wrote all songs and lyrically they betray her background as a poet without being snooty about it. Where else could I could catch references to the Bible, Buddha, and Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” in the same song? Highlights for me include “Doesn’t Need to Know” which flat out drips with sex, booze, voodoo, and murder while building to a great horns arrangement and, if I’m not mistaken, the whole damn band (though at just shy of 6 minutes, it’s way too long for radio play). “Buzzards Bay” is a rollicking klezmer-styled song which earns special points for me by being named after a location in my next Cobalt City novel, and I’ve always had a soft spot for klezmer. “Stranger“, a fragile song where, for the first time, the ukulele takes the lead with the gentle accompaniment of strings and harmonica is hands down my favorite song on the album. Lyrically, it’s gorgeous, and the arrangement manages to be both simple and lush at the same time which is no small accomplishment. “Clocks and Bottles,” the final track on the album descends into full on Dixieland ass-kicker by the end of the song and is a marvelous way to round out a stellar debut CD.
The full album is available on bandcamp as a digital download for only $10. That’s barely the price of two mochas. You can’t even see a movie for that kind of money anymore. And for ten tracks you’re going to listen to again and again while supporting a new musician who really knocked it out of the park? Pffff…trust me. Drop the ten-spot on these tracks and you’ll have no regrets. Or go hog-wild and buy the physical CD which comes packed with art, liner notes, and the full nine-yards for only $5 more. I recognize that some of you might have more narrow musical tastes, and that’s dandy. Someone has to buy those damn Robin Thicke albums, I guess, and it ain’t going to be me. But thanks to the magic of bandcamp you can stream the album in it’s entirety or sample it track by track if you want to see if it scratches your itch.
Consider my itch scratched.