On the Record: The Nouveau String Band

by Nick Pittman

On the covers of Nouveau String Band’s The Great American Road Trip, there are clues to what is in store for the listener. The jacket’s semi-caricature likenesses of the greats in American music seems to represent the lightheartedness — but reverent — treatment they are about to receive via the inherent playfulness of string music. The 12 covers and one original have a way of stretching notes into smiles, even when weaving tales of heartbreak and sorrow.

Another preview comes in the form of a quote from photographer and cultural curator Philip Gould as he describes the band in just two words: “loose … tight.” The oxymoronic pairing for the band is pretty perfect. There is a looseness here as the band just seems to enjoy breathing new life into these old tracks. The tightness is also present as the multi-instrumentalists covering more than one musical base never miss a note.

These abilities come in handy as tribute records are nimble paths to travel. Some don’t do justice to the source material. Some are cheesy takes on classics better left alone. Others still simply recycle material that has been through the process a few too many times. Here, NSB have picked (no pun intended) 12 great songs that haven’t been overexposed and give them a grand treatment in reinvention.

Count Basie’s “Beans ‘N’ Rice” and “Miss Thing” are horn-driven jazzy numbers that get a back porch jam treatment that plays well with their whimsical nature. Robert Johnson’s “From Four Til Late” strangely goes the other way — from string blues to a low key number with jazzy touches. The bustling jazz piano and minimal drum kit of Oscar Peterson’s “Topsy” gets turned around into something The Red Stick Ramblers would have played in their early days, as the piano is replaced with lots of well-plucked strings in an instrumental voyage. Another Basie cut, “920 Special,” also undergoes this change with a little more club jazz feel. Jimmy Martin’s “I’ve Got My Future on Ice,” sounds a little like a Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker alt. country string-band experiment on the classic country/bluegrass tune. The early Marvin Gaye sounds of “Try It Baby” are unrecognizable as snaps keep the pace to a song no one would have ever have pegged to be remade as a string band number. It isn’t as far a stretch for Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Get You Off my Mind” to become Western swing, but it is a delight nonetheless.

This record will probably not delight purists and staunch fans of the artists from which they borrow but that doesn’t mean its not fit for the rest of us. Just like the cover image, NSB shows off by taking great American music and spinning it just enough to make it semi-original while not degrading the source.