Hillbilly Underground

fRoots Magazine
Ian Kearey
(5 Stars!)

Since the death of their original bass player, John Hayward, only a few disparate recordings have crept out under the Horse Flies name – a couple of live recordings and a brace of film soundtracks – while the various members of the band have busied themselves with other projects: fiddler Judy Hyman has worked with Natalie Merchant, banjoist/singer Richie Stearns has popped up on a number of projects, and singer/banjo-mandolinist Jeff Claus’s band Boy With A Fish made its New York debut earlier this year. But now they have reinvented themselves as a studio band, with former percussionist Taki Masuko and new members Rick Hanson on accordion and keyboards and Jay Olsa on bass, for an all-round splendid return.

The format here is closer to that of the 1980s Human Fly, rather than the later Gravity Dance: Hyman’s instrumentals, Rafting (From My Front Door) and Three Shoes, feature her trademark long, swooping fiddle lines against intense and, in the case of the latter, grand backdrops, in the manner of their classic Sally Anne; the ‘trad.arr.’ numbers vary from Drunkard’s Child, emotively sung by Stearns, through a chilling rendition of Oh Death, to a real Flies rave-up on Cluck Old Hen, which is a classic mix of Fiddlin’ John Carson, Norman Edmonds and acid house – basically, what the band do better than anyone else in the world.

Of the original songs, the standouts are Claus’s Build A House And Burn It Down and A Hundred Camels, with their dry observations and weird conclusions (is there a code in Ashburn, Georgia?), and Stearns’s freakshow Carnival Lips and disturbing Baghdad Children, where the verses say ‘All god’s children have no place to hide/When the bombs come falling from the sky’ and are set against a refrain of ‘I believe in love’. With Claus’s banjo-mandolin rattling away to set an acoustic electronic rhythm in tandem with the percussion, Hyman’s drone fiddle and Stearns’s Motown-meets-Uncle Dave Macon banjo, the classic Flies sound reminds one what a joy it always was. Unique and treasurable.

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