"Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen" by Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
Fiddlemon Music
3 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

It all comes down to taste. One person may like Sigur Rós but think Hank Williams was just a country hick. A lot of people believe Hank was one of the best songwriters and singers who ever graced the Grand Ole Opry, and what is a Sigur Rós?

For my taste there is country music and then there’s country music. Country music is that subset of country that I like, and the same can be said of everyone. Taylor Swift’s cotton candy music is country music. Faron Young singing “Hello Walls” is country music. That doesn’t make Taylor Swift’s music bad; she’s selling millions of records. I just don’t like it and I miss hearing Faron on the radio.

The same is true when you talk bluegrass. There’s bluegrass and bluegrass. It’s a repeated topic on BGRASS-L, the bluegrass listserv. Some say it’s all good, you can’t define it, you can’t pigeonhole it. Others worry bluegrass may go the same way as country. The good side of the trends in country, of course, is country music’s increased popularity and the additional millions of dollars flowing to its stars (whoever they may be). In the context of bluegrass, I believe the majority of fans like traditional music. I can think of several prominent names who have used the same set list for the past decade, or so it seems. But the same people sit in the same spots in front of the stage and applaud like they’re hearing them for the first time. Bluegrass fans like their traditions.

Most fans and practitioners of bluegrass agree on six basic instruments: banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass and resophonic guitar. Not all bands carry six musicians – the money isn’t that good – but it’s rare to see a professional band without at least four and the resophonic guitar is the rarest of the six. Recordings often sport “guest” musicians to help fill in the blanks. Dirty Kitchen’s members are excellent musicians. Leader Frank Solivan doubles on mandolin and fiddle and guest Rob Ickes supplies resophonic guitar on three tracks. The liner notes call them “super pickers,” but that description is getting frayed around the edges. The truth is there’s a gob of bluegrass musicians out there that play like angels sing, and trying to compare them to determine who is best is like comparing a box of kitchen matches to find the best one.

“Ominous Anonymous” is an interesting instrumental, hard driving with some complexity while “Line Drive” flies. Both will be copied by grassroots bands across the country, challenged to play it like you hear it on the CD.

They can do bluegrass. They do an a cappella version of “Paul and Silas” that is excellent. Their harmony is much tighter than, as a comparison, a Merlefest performance by Earl Scruggs (especially interesting because Earl is fingerpicking a flattop). Solivan and crew nail the song.

Solivan is the lead singer for Dirty Kitchen. He spent six years with Country Current and has played with some of the biggest names in the business. The mixes on the numbers that feature him tend to bury him in with the background while the harmony passages soar above the instruments. His vocals just don’t interest me. He’s not a crooner like David Parmley or a powerful tenor like Russell Moore. Switching lead singers on some songs would have made the project more interesting, and a better mix on Solivan’s leads would have also helped.

This CD grew on me. The first few passes were mostly uninspiring because of the difficulty picking out the lead vocals and hearing what Solivan was singing. With some concentration it can be done, but you should be able to enjoy a bluegrass CD without working at it. “Hello Friend” is more likable if you concentrate when you listen. One way I measure a song is to mentally substitute the band performing it. I’m a IIIrd Tyme Out fan, so, can I hear 3TO singing “Hello Friend”? I think so. The arrangement is good, it has interesting interludes, not just timeworn IV – V – I turnarounds. “The Note That Said Goodbye” is pure bluegrass from the first intro notes from the banjo. It’s interesting to note the different mix on this song. Solivan sounds much better singing lead here.

“Driftin’ Apart” drifts into the broader bluegrass category. It just doesn’t sound like bluegrass despite the acoustic instruments. It’s a struggle to understand the words and so the message is lost. The same is true of “Together We’ll Fly.” It just doesn’t sound like bluegrass so, if you like traditional music, you’ll hit the button to forward to the next song. Then there’s “July You’re A Woman” which may be the only bluegrass-targeted song with the repeating line, “na na na na na na na” in it. Sorry, but to borrow from Bill Monroe, “That ain’t no part of nothin’.”

To nitpick, someone goofed in post production. When you load the CD into a player like Windows Media Player, you see titles like “July your a woman,” “The note that said goodbye,” and “Poul and Silas.” Proper capitalization and spelling isn’t that difficult for twelve song titles.

If you’re a bluegrass fan you’ll like the CD but probably not love it because of the mixing issue. If you’re a bluegrass fan you’ll rip three or four songs off to put on a compilation CD then put it on a high shelf.