july 2009

thumbnailTIME TO STAND
The Belleville Outfit
Thirty Tigers

There's every reason to like the Belleville Outfit, the swinging sextet whose 2008 self-released debut scored big with Americana fans. These skilled musicians seamlessly move from and mesh rootsy styles ranging from western swing to big band jazz to country, and they do so with a sense of purpose and humor. The arrangements are terrific, with lively interchanges between Connor Forsyth's ebullient piano work (he's a revelation throughout, an endless fount of energy, intellect and invention), Rob Teter's jazz-influenced electric guitar and Phoebe Hunt's smart, concise fiddle work, and the dynamics are universally unerring and affecting. The band has a heart, too, dedicating the moody title track in memory of the journalist and musician Daniel Perl, brutally slain by a militant Pakistani group in 2002. Where some might find the exercise wanting is in the vocals department. Teter and Hunt, the principal voices of The Belleville Outfit, throw themselves into their original songs (they write the bulk of the Outfit's material), but too often are working on the surface instead of digging deep for feeling that sounds vital, lived in and earned. When they do get it together—notably on the grand, surging "Once and For All," which deserves the rich, cascading arrangement it's given—the duo, Teter singing lead, Hunt adding urgent harmonies, sounds fully invested in this compelling musing on the game of love, its uncertain arc and an individual's quest to understand it and himself—really good stuff in its incisive, soul baring lyrics and the grandeur of the music bolstering the singers. Following that is a tasty, low-key country heartbreaker, "Two Days of Darkness," wherein Teter's and Hunt's voices blend in an aching duet in which a devastated lover pleads with his wayward paramour to return to his waiting arms. As in "Once and For All," it sounds like something's at stake here. Other moments are less engaging—Hunt's great with a flirty vocal on ditties such as "As Good As It Gets," but it's more cute than captivating; Teter clips off a rhythmic, catchy vocal on the gypsy-flavored "Sunday Morning," but when he tosses off the line about "a day in the life of a full-time fool," he doesn't sound contrite, any more than the bright, swinging music supporting him suggests the empty soul described in the lyrics. That said, a number of these songs also sound like terrific live numbers. The Outfit would hardly be the first group or artist that hasn't quite translated its live energy to the studio yet (one recalls critics once deriding a certain Bruce Springsteen for that selfsame flaw), and all reports indicate the band is picking up a solid following as it tours around. So this is not to write off the Belleville Outfit—perish the thought—but rather to advise that one man's ceiling is another man's floor. But after you've enjoyed the show, would you buy the CD and put it in heavy rotation at home? On that count, Time To Stand may well come up a tad short. —David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024