joseph c barbarie
There too many of these musical re-imaginings, or "picked-on", or "orchestral" versions of classic rock standards, to count. There are several "orchestral" versions of "Darkside" itself; there may be possibly be another bluegrass version, but I am not aware of it. Sadly, most of these musical marriages are unhappy ones -- opposites may attract, but they don't hang on. This, however, is not one of those. To stay with the marriage metaphor, it is one built on reverence, love, and attention to detail.
To begin with, the band preserves that sense of narrative development that made its forebear such a success; in their own quiet way, however, PMW outdoes the Pink Floyd model. Whereas in the original "Dark Side," a sense of continuity is provided by conceptual links in the lyrical subject matter and spacey, echo-y sound effect, PMW achieves exactly the same end with a much simpler means; Josh Brough's steadily rolling banjo. In every song, there it is; brilliant and sunny in the opening "Breathe", simmering and bubbling just beneath the surface of "Time," or plangent and soaring (and funky, as well) for "Any Colour."
Eventually, the banjo emerges as a real musical personality (almost like a Straussian or Wagnerian heldentenor taking center-stage) in the band's re-imagined version of "Money", titled "Whiskey". The brooding, sinister clawhammer lick is perfectly in keeping with the images of shotguns, hellhounds, and whiskey-stills of the revamped lyric. When Brough hollers, "Sheriff knockin at my door/I shot him with my .44" he is terrifyingly authentic. The banjo part has paved the way for this moment.
Mention must also be made of the gorgeous vocal harmonies, as well as the surprisingly strong individual vocal turns. This is truly an "army of generals", in terms of instrumental and vocal abilities. Particular kudos for whoever sings the "Breathe Reprise" -- my ear tells me it is probably drummer George Smeltz.
Although the majority of this review is expended on the double album's "black disc," this is by no means an indication of the "white disc"'s relative importance, or quality. To be perfectly honest, the high point of the entire experience has to be the lush, even baroque horn-arranging for the Cab Calloway-esque "Alley Tramp." Outside of Steely Dan, or Elvis Costello's arrangements on "Spike", you will rarely hear brass being deployed with such a combination of discipline and eclat. Although I mention Cab Calloway -- in terms of instrumental gorgeousness, other names spring to mind as well; Sidney Bechet, or Illinois Jacquet.
The only weak point is some of the engineering; the bass (at least in the confines of my Honda) seems a bit "dull" or "thuddy" on the recording. It lacks some of the growl that an upright signal ordinarily has (if you listen to PMW's live recordings, it's much more present in those). Further, the vocals seem a bit crowded out of the sound-picture, which is sad, given the band's vocal strengths.