If you spent much time in downtown Burlington this summer, it’s likely you caught the Hokum High Rollers busking on the Church Street Marketplace at one point or another. The local string band was a welcome ragtag regular on our increasingly homogeneous and, well, pedestrian pedestrian mall. As spiritual steampunk kin to beloved suspender-fusion progenitors the Vermont Joy Parade, the vagabondish, old-time quartet helped reintroduce a raw, joyous artistic aesthetic to the Queen City’s social hub. These High Rollers got style.
Their debut album, Big Blessings Poppin’, achieves a similarly humble feat, standing out as a defiantly rough-hewn musical treasure as jubilant and whimsical as it is well worn and frayed around the edges.
On Blessings, the High Rollers cruise right by “lo-fi” and hop off the sonic freight car at “no-fi.” The album was recorded live, which lends an air of enthusiasm and vibrancy that attempts to do justice to the band’s energetic live act. By and large, that’s the exact effect. However, at times the album is crude to a fault.
The lead cut, “Travelin’ Man,” is one such example, sounding as though it was literally recorded in the aforementioned freight car … while the train was moving. Fast. Peppy vocal turns from resophonic guitarist Jason Lawrence and tenor banjo and uke player Hannah Waltz are too often swallowed in cacophony. And though guitar and banjo are prominent in the mix, the general bedlam detracts from what appear to be fine performances.
Other cuts fare far better. “Please, Baby” is a loping gem. And though the vocals are still frustratingly set back in the mix, the song bears an irresistibly clumsy charm, embodied by Raychel Severance’s bouncy bucket bass. “Furniture Man” showcases Lawrence’s nimble licks and the propulsive scratch of Nathan Tinglof’s washboard percussion. “My Gal Sal” is a jaunty little ditty, with Waltz delivering madcap vocals over a bustle of jumpy banjo and flittering bells. The riotous “Shake It and Break It” features a grinning cameo on kazoo-a-phone from Uncle Davie Jenkins, who also engineered the album. And “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is a yearning, breezily pretty hothouse number that evokes pure, wide-eyed innocence.
Big Blessings Poppin’ might grate on the ears of overly particular audiophiles. But for the Hokum High Rollers, that seems to be at least partially the point. Flaws are often as important to character as are strengths. Clean isn’t always better. And sometimes, you just gotta get down and play in the dirt. Few do that better than the Hokum High Rollers.