"The Burlap Album" Review

Written by Mark S. Jordan for The Mount Vernon News
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As the Beatles had "The White Album" so Mount Vernon's good-time, not-quite-folk band Elixir has "The Burlap Album" being officially released tonight during a Christmas Chautauqua program/CD release party at ThePlace@TheWoodward, on South Main Street.

The band, which consists of Mike Petee; his wife Chris Petee; and Gerry Rensel, plays traditional songs of the 1800's, but with unexpected twists. Old favorites are subject to being rearranged in the style of polka, Elvis Presley, the Andrew Sisters, reggae, bluegrass, country, blues, Beach Boys and more. You can certainly expect the unexpected on Elixir's latest album. With a title as sly and witty as the group's reinventions of folk and popular music from days past, "The Burlap Album" brims with fun and mischief.

Anyone looking for pure-roots music won't find it here, because the members of Elixir are not musical archaeologists so much as musical mad scientists with pop culture fixations. Thus a perky rendition of "Polly Wolly Doodle" can feature a Mike Petee electric bass solo that wanders off into the bass line of a 1960's rock song. After the other instruments pause in confusion for a moment, they join in, leading back into the original folk song, with another hint of the interloper in the closing moments of the track.

The track is rightly presented unadorned here, without the banter which accompanies such shtick during live shows, but would seem forced if replicated in the studio, plus it might wear with replaying.

"Old Joe Clark" is introduced in mock-solemn harmonies, but once it takes off, it is appropriately
left alone as the classic fiddle-driven scorcher it is. Rensel handles both lead vocal, with a fine high tenor voice, and the rhythmically driving fiddle part with toe-tapping flair. "Down in the Valley" maintains it's familiar melody-at least at first-but is given a reggae-style, complete with Cuban guiro, the notched, hollow gourd scraped with a stick, so often heard in Caribbean music.

Chris Petee leads lyrically with a sweet, elegantly shaped vocal on "Hard Times Comes Again No More," supported by lovely backing vocals over chiming mandolin, guitar and bass.  Mike Petee takes lead vocal for the group's rollicking rendition of "Old MacDonald", jacked up with the familiar bass riff used in The Doors "Roadhouse Blues", not to mention some funny animal sounds from Chris Petee. Love the dolphin!

For all it's impressive a cappella singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" struck me as a little overly cute at first in it's mock Andrews Sisters style. But then the singers pitch a delightful curve ball, comically slowing down and dropping the pitch on a few passing chords. It sounds exactly as if a vinyl record were being slowed down by someone lightly holding a finger down on the record as it spins on the turntable, a trick that all of us of a certain age no doubt tried when we were young.

Rensel takes lead vocal on his own arrangement of a gospel medley including "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and "I Saw the Light," supported by solid, sweet harmony vocals. The harmony singing throughout the album is tight and tasty, with Mike Petee playing the range from tenor to deep bass, as needed.

Part of the fun of Elixir is that the arrangements frequently flirt with disaster, always risking going to far over the top in the name of reinvention. But they typically land just on this side of the line. One that arguably doesn't is the marriage of the old cowboy song "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" and the joyous jazz number "When the Saints Go Marching In."  Though one tune can fit over the other, and they both sound fine separate, there still remains a jolt shifting from one part of the
arrangement to another.

In addition to the traditional songs are a couple of original numbers written by Mike Petee himself. Less self-consciously "entertaining" than most of the calculated crowd-pleasing material here, Petee's "Beautiful Ohio" (not to be confused with the traditional state song) is a breath of fresh, somber air, telling the story of a young soldier lying wounded on the Civil War battlefield of Antietam, wondering if he'll ever see his Ohio farm again.

The song demonstrates the serious power that Petee often demonstrates on historical/biographical subjects. He has quite a body of such songs which as of yet remain unrecorded. I would greatly enjoy hearing such a collection.

The other original Petee number here is a corny, comical Ohio history lesson in the form of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," titled "Ohio Bicentennial Song," which is used to close the album. Whether one finds it cute or one those notorious Mike Petee groaners - when someone, someday writes a musical play about Petee, it will be titled "With Pun In Hand" - will remain up to the individual listener. After all, "The White Album" had "Revolution 9", which sends most listeners reaching for the fast forward button, so Elixir must be granted their experiments which don't exactly catch fire.

In sum, not all Elixir's antics come to life in the studio, but the solid musicianship of the performers insures that some real delights come down the pike in "The Burlap Album."
The recorded sound is  generally clear and close. Though it gets a touch congested from overdubs in places, it remains comfortably listenable.