Review: Twisted Pine – “Right Now”

On Twisted Pine’s self-titled debut, from 2017, the Boston trio unfurled master classes in Appalachian balladry with folk gems like “Lose My Love.” On that track, frontwoman Kathleen Parks offered heart-aching laments like “I never said I loved you first … At least the days are getting longer, keeping nights at bay/ I’m just trying to lose my love for you a little more each day” over fiddle, acoustic guitar, mandolin and upright bass. In 2018, after winning best band at the traditional Thomas Point Bluegrass Special outside Portland, Maine, the group was named Americana Artist of the Year at the Boston Music Awards.

However, 2018 was a long time ago. A “sell your soul to the devil to make it big” long time ago, to be precise. Twisted Pine recently released its sophomore LP, Right Now, and, in an effort perhaps to stay relevant or appeal to “a broader audience” or just drop a lemon in their collective colas, the band has tossed most of its emotional heft and resonance overboard. They might be more twisted than ever, constantly aspiring over all sound logic to “blur the genres” that butt up against pop, but some of the record’s lesser moments owe more debt to Taylor Swift’s plastic-wrapped Nashville candy than the powerful yet nuanced whiskey of labelmates Crooked Still, whose bent-bluegrass approach they earlier had emulated. There are people with broad or bright palates who will devour this stuff (maybe?), but for those who cut their teeth on the band’s exceptional 2017 debut, it’s a sad, sad fall from grace. Cue the “Judas!” Twisted Pine has been bitten and bled dry by the mainstream mosquito.

The band starts the wreck of a record with the LP’s title track, whose acoustic guitar shuffle and occasional flute punctuation might or might not be making homage to the Dave Matthews Band – and feels twice as watered-down for mass consumption. By “Papaya,” the third track, it’s readily evident that Twisted Pine is going all-in on this reinvention scheme, crafting lighthearted, hyper-fluorescent fare that feels like an odd, Starbucks-perky combination of Alison Krauss and “Uptown Funk.” This is a record with a bizarre sense of purpose, cut to wring the most downloads and Spotify streams out of every ounce of “feeling” – but it’s not a good taste for the already initiated.

The record does have some redeeming qualities. “Come Along Jody,” with its somehow lush insinuations of Irish folk, shows a vested technicality; these guys might have missed the aim on the LP, but this track reminds you that, when it comes to the prowess and to the chops, they’re no amateurs. It’s surrounded, though, with dreck like “Well, You Can Do It Without Me,” which has a loungy upright-bass groove to it (not bad, not bad) but whose vocals seem like they’re aiming not for sincerity but instead for placement as the backdrop in a hipster-Volkswagen commercial. For every burst of creativity, of unadulterated inspiration, there’s an equal amount of commercial pandering. The far-too-short “Talkeetna,” its gullet in the opening overflowing with looped samples, has an infectious, if slight, bob to it. It’s nowhere as enthralling as the group’s debut, but it at least hints in that general direction. The closing “Tomorrow the Sun Will Rise” offers everything that’s ill-fitting for American times about New Age optimism, right down to the radio-ready sentiment. Blech.

Again, before you sign your hate mail, yes, yes, yes, yes, there are people who will like this. Not everyone wants to craft or consume hyper-nuanced roots music. But a lot of people go to McDonald’s, too. For a band that served up a debut of fine, juicy steaks and elegant wine to pair, settling for a sixer of McNuggets is pretty lame. Verdict: hopefully Twisted Pine comes back to its senses for record number three. We remain, sadly, pessimistic. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Sept. 14, 2020

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