HAD A SCRUFFY Iron Range kid-turned-Dinkytown busker named Robert Zimmerman not stumbled into the Minneapolis folk scene some 40 years back, opening his ears to a slew of Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie records, the genre we know as roots rock wouldn't exist. And though Dylan soon skipped town, the form he helped spawn has cast a long shadow over the local rock scene ever since.
Enter Bellwether, the modest Minneapolis quartet that recently issued its self-titled second disc. Local scene vet Ed Ackerson handled production duties on the new album, which (like its predecessor, Turnstiles) was released on the band's own vanity imprint. Bellwether owes plenty to the Twin Towns' roots royalty: Eric Luoma and Jimmy Peterson's two-part harmonies echo those of Mark Olson and Gary Louris; Luoma's harmonica and banjo parts and Peterson's steel fills could have been turned out by elder studio ringers like Razz Russell or Dave Boquist in their sleep. But so what if Bellwether swipes liberally from the Jayhawks and Son Volt ("South Dakota" is a straight lift of the latter's "Tear Stained Eye")? Those bands copped all their tricks from the Burritos, Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield anyway.
Bellwether the album is monochromatic in its melancholia, but not unlikable. Similarly, Bellwether the band possesses a pair of gifted songwriters in Luoma and Peterson, but the duo is too quick to settle for the obvious chord progression or the lyric grounded in cliché. Rounded out by bassist Phil Tippin and drummer John Crist (who's since been replaced by Mickey Wirtz), the foursome play on record with a competence that comes off as nearly antiseptic (here Ackerson is partly at fault). These songs would benefit from a little grit and guts. For that, Crist's mates need look no further than the sticks man's former band, the Dashboard Saviors, who boosted their basic roots rock with Southern soul and Stonesy crunch. Maybe next time around.
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