King Wilkie: King Wilkie Presents- The Wilkie Family Singers

kingwilkie_singersAudacious pop concept by former bluegrass wunderkind

If you caught King Wilkie’s bluegrass debut Broke, and somehow managed to miss their break with orthodoxy on 2007’s Low Country Suite, you’re in for a really big surprise. With the original group disbanded, and founding member Reid Burgess relocated to New York City, the band’s name has been redeployed as the front for this stylistically zig-zagging concept album. The Wilkie Family Singers are an imagined co-habitating, musically-inclined family fathered by shipping magnate Jude Russell Wilkie, and filled out by a wife, six children, a cousin, two friends and two pets.

In reality the assembled group includes Burgess, longtime collaborator John McDonald, multi-instrumentalist Steve Lewis, and guest appearances by Peter Rowan, David Bromberg, John McEuen, Robyn Hitchcock, Abigail Washburn and Sam Parton. And rather than constructing a storyline or song-cycle, Burgess wrote songs that give expression to the family’s life and backstory. As he explains, “Jude Russell Wilkie, Sr. had success with a Great Lakes shipping business, and becomes the father to a great family, whose normal familial roles aren’t neatly defined as they grow older. Their insular lifestyle and wealth has them in a sort of time warp. They’re wedged in limbo between past and future. Too big to hold mom’s hand or ride on dad’s shoulders, but still somehow too small to leave their childhood house.”

Much as the Beatles used Sgt. Pepper as a backdrop to inform the mood of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Burgess works from his sketch to conjure a family photo album rather than a written history. There are snapshots of togetherness, isolation, and stolen moments of solitary time, there’s lovesick pining, unrequited longing for the larger world, lives stunted in adolescence, violent dreams and medicinal coping. The band ranges over an impressive variety of styles that include acoustic country, blues and folk, rustic Americana, Dixieland jazz, ’50s-tinged throwbacks and ’70s-styled production pop. There’s even some back-porch picking here, but this edition of King Wilkie has much grander ambitions than to embroider the bluegrass handed down by Bill Monroe. The festival circuit’s loss is pop music’s gain.

Burgess paints the family as lyrical motifs and musical colors rather than descriptive profiles. The latter might have been more immediately satisfying but would have quickly turned stagey. Instead, the family’s dynamic is spelled out in small pieces, fitting the broad range of musical styles to create an album that plays beautifully from beginning to end. The songs stand on their own, but the family’s presence is felt in the flow of the album’s tracks. Casa Nueva hits a homerun with their maiden release, and King Wilkie proves itself a daring band whose next step should be highly anticipated. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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