Album Review – Al Scorch’s ‘Circle Round The Signs’

I really didn’t know what to expect coming into an album named Circle Round The Signs by a guy from Chicago named Al Scorch. To be fair, you never know what you can expect from a member of Bloodshot Records, and that’s not meant to be taken as an insult. Actually, it speaks to the level of creativity embodied under that label, and Al Scorch is certainly what one could call creative.

I’m honestly a little intimidated with how to start off this review folks. I’ve listened to Circle Round The Signs at least a dozen times by now, and all I can say is – holy shit. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that creativity is a trait that isn’t evident in Country or Americana these days, but I think we need to award Al Scorch for crafting one of 2016’s best releases thus far.
Circle Round The Signs is the complete package in terms of excellent lyricism, instrumentation, and vocals. Normally I go into albums with a notebook ready to jot down notes and write down anything I see fitting to talk about in great detail. I have to be honest folks, I didn’t do that for this album. I was actually losing myself to the music, something that I don’t think any album in 2016 has done for me thus far.

Indeed, the number one word I’d use to describe is “fun”. I know it sounds like a weak description, and to be honest it doesn’t do this album enough justice, but it’s the only way I can describe it. Modern mainstream country music may have you fooled into thinking that all fun songs have to contain loud rock guitars and dumb lyricism to work, but Al Scorch proves how to really make you let loose and become enraptured by the wonderful music present in these ten tracks.

What gives this album such a bright, effervescent atmosphere is grounded mostly in the instrumentation, this album’s bread and butter (although, don’t discount the other elements). Just when you think there’s not a damn thing anyone could do with the banjo to make it sound fresh or new, by golly, Al Scorch proves you wrong. The playing here is fast, and it will knock you on your ass if you aren’t prepared for the first listen.  It’s the backbone for every track here, but that’s not to say that every track here is some speedgrass frenzy that doesn’t give you a moment to rest.
While the banjo is the backbone of this album, Al spices up this album a lot. “Lost At Sea” is a fantastic example of that bright atmosphere I was discussing earlier, and the usage of the accordion really makes this song a standout. “Everybody Out” adds horns into the mix, but not in a way that chases after the funky soul trend that has swallowed many Americana acts up. No, the horns here are meant to give the song an authentic jazzy feel, and again is just utterly fantastic. Moving forward, Al’s other secret weapon of choice beside the banjo seems to be the fiddle which also provides a lot of luscious melodies that are pleasing to the ears.

“Insomnia” is the first chance this album gives you to catch your breath, and even then, at the halfway point you better strap in your seatbelts boys and girls, because this song explodes in tempo midway through. Don’t worry though, because “Lonesome Low” is a song where you really can catch your breath, and at that point you’ll start to notice that the instrumentation isn’t the only thing worth praising on this album. Indeed, Al’s lyricism is of a high caliber of quality as well, and it isn’t anymore evident than on the cutting “Poverty Draft” about contemplating the military as a career option since you’re too poor to do anything else. I also quite enjoyed the end song, “Love After Death” for painting an optimistic picture of a man who desires to be with his dead spouse because he simply loves her that much. It’s kind of a bittersweet ending to the album and yet the lively instrumentation still manages to make it click. I think it should also be noted that Al’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Slipknot” is something that should be commended as well. Like any cover, if the artist in question can make you forget that it is a cover then they’ve done a pretty damn great job. There’s also a great match of lyricism and instrumentation on “City Lullaby” that overall gives it quite an alluring quality.

At ten tracks, this album doesn’t waste your time, and I’m not quite sure there’s a sloucher in the bunch. This is a hell of an album.

I love this album. I love the energy it has, I love the atmosphere, and I love the sounds. It’s an album that obviously had a ton of love put into it, and the creativity of its instrumentation can’t be commended enough. It’s an album that’s a melting pot of folk, jazz, rock, country, and bluegrass that somehow makes all those genres come together for a hell of a result. I haven’t been this elated about a 2016 release in a long time, and I’m happy to declare that Circle Round The Signs is one of the best albums you’ll hear thus far in 2016.

Best Tracks: All of them, but more specifically, “Lost At Sea”, “Poverty Draft”, “Love After Death”

(9/10)

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