Last week on Pearl Street in downtown Boulder, Colorado, I stumbled onto something beautiful. Four scruffy guys stood playing folk music on the sidewalk, crowded around a beat-up old suitcase with a hand-written sign: “10 Bucks For A CD.” One guy had a washboard around his neck and a hotel call bell and upturned candleholder propped on the battered suitcase in front of him; another plucked away at a big ol’ stand-up bass, darting his right hand up between numbers to scratch his Fu Manchu and adjust his sweat-stained bandana.
They were unpolished, and they were real, and it was obvious there was nothing they would rather be doing than providing a little something to dance to for the ten or twelve people gathered around them clapping and stepping along. Ten bucks got me a foldout cardboard sleeve dotted with Hieronymus Bosch artwork and enclosing a self-printed CD – “Strange Tongues,” recorded in 2014 – that perfectly captures the genuine immediacy of that street performance. The album is available in its entirety online at Hot Damn Scandal’s page.
Anymore, it seems like you can’t throw a Frisbee without hitting an Americana revival-type band, but many of them lose sight of a key notion for which Hot Damn Scandal display an intuitive understanding: If you’re plying your trade within a genre that’s been steeped in over 200 years of ordinary folks communing at the end of an eight-day work week for a Cumbaya session of pickin’ and singin’, keep in mind that Americana music has always been as much about a rascally self-awareness and a blue collar, shoot-for-the-moon manifest destiny as it has the non-stop soil and toil. Throughout “Strange Tongues,” Hot Damn Scandal deftly balances dutiful homage to tradition with a playful reverence.
The latter gleefully pops into full view from the opening seconds of album-opener “How to Act,” as squirrely guitar punctuates a jubilant horn that jumps and jives like it’s strutting down Bourbon Street. The song’s jaunty call-and-response routine allows the narrator to riff on his own small-time mischief. “I just picked my nose and flicked it off in space,” he admits. The response: “Well, I can’t blame you there.”
The former is on stark display in “Wild Rose.” The song opens in a strain of mournful violin and percussive acoustic guitar a la Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” With a few ladies’ tender backup vocals lending soothing support, the singer intones, “The only thing that everybody shares is the fear that no one else is really there.”
The band hails from Bellingham, Washington, and operates as a loose, traveling collective in the vein of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. Its lineup is in a state or perennial flux. The album’s liner notes credit a combined total of 16 band members and musical contributors, including some help from their friend Bill’s ducks.
This diversity of personnel tangibly impacts “Twist It Up,” a sort of summer party anthem for the Birkenstock set in which three different singers espouse the pleasure of a vice-filled lifestyle, but it is also reflected in the record’s eclectic mingling of stylistic directions.
“She Ain’t No Good” could slide seamlessly into Tom Waits’ 1983 album “Swordfishtrombones.” The singer’s voice cracks and slurs when he howls the chorus and spits with staccato accusation in each verse. The song lurches along on stuttering plucks and a few touches of flamenco flourish from an acoustic guitar before devolving completely into a clatter of trashcan lid stomping, deep-throated growls and Mario sound effects.
In “Blame it on the Rain,” a trombone glissandos and the electric guitar swaps solos with a clarinet. “Gold” exudes the bittersweet wanderlust of an old sea shanty, and album-closer “Jericho” is an epic in the vein of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore,” with the singer narrating an impending clash with a world-weary sneer as his trusty acoustic guitar gallops underneath him.
Banjos burble through the pastoral lullaby of “Glistenin’ Steel” as the track envelops you in the warmth of gentle mandolin and square dance-ready violin. The singer’s genuine appreciation for the cool creeks and dense trees of the valley in which he has immersed himself is soothing and contagious, and his voice is a nasally, unpolished whine – flawed perfection.

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