With an audience big enough to fill First Avenue twice-over this weekend, and a 2006 live CD that I play for pleasure more than Chooglin' or P.O.S., Trampled by Turtles are major Minnesota artists by any standard that matters in my household. So is Trouble a major work of Minnesota art? Not quite. Deepening an idea that clicked in many people's minds the moment Peter Buck's mandolin kicked in on the Replacements' "I Will Dare" 23 years ago, TBT's third album of post-bluegrass feels immense enough, no small thanks to production by Rich Mattson (of Ol' Yeller), Dave Gardner's mastering, and guest fiddling by Jessy Greene—plus Retribution Gospel Choir's Eric Pollard stopping by to drum (!) here and there. Such scenester votes of confidence aside, however, Dave Simonett is a better singer than he apparently gives himself credit for, at least judging by the way he embeds his vocals in the blurry harmonies of his fellows on banjo, bass, and mandolin.
In concert and at a glance, the man is barely distinguishable, seated among the three other male off-blonds, wearing two or three beards between them. But Simonett is nonetheless the most compelling frontman Duluth has produced in years. His flow has a shit-kicking quality no folkie can assume, a frank way of phrasing that makes his melodies a blunt instrument amid impressionist strumming. But he takes comfort in lyrical clichés ("There's peace in the valley," "go tell it on the mountain," etc.) and seems to recognize there's a problem: "I'll never write another song again," he blurts on "Never Again," sounding suddenly authoritative, "'cause they all sound the same and I should be ashamed." Then he opens the next song, "Trouble," with one of his best, most plausibly Minnesotan lines: "It's cold enough to kill/But you're so near that I can hear you breathing." That tune's title chorus oddly resembles Low's recent slow rocking, as does "Who's Calling?" two tracks later. But these guys would do well to get hotter, not colder, in the spotlight.
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