Penny Black

Jubilee Riots

Independent release, 2014

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Jubilee Riots don’t lack for imagination. At least, that’s my first impression upon hearing album opener “Trying Times,” which might be the most anthemic song ever to feature funeral organ and banjo. And that’s before you even hit the midpoint of the track, where it explodes outward with a thunderous backbeat, shrieking blues harp and a rising chorus of background vocals as it crescendos. It’s a rousing number with power-pop verve but very unusual architecture.

It’s also a spot-on manifestation of the band’s name, and that’s significant, because Jubliee Riots is the new musical identity of a group that for 18 years and 10 albums prior to this one was known as Enter The Haggis. Having evolved far beyond their roots as a sort of Celtic jam band, though, it feels like a wise choice to update their name to reflect the more varied and adventurous sound they produce today.

The group includes Brian Buchanan (vocals, electric guitar, keyboards, fiddle), Bruce McCarthy (drums, vocals), Craig Downie (trumpet, whistle, harmonica, vocals), Trevor Lewington (vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin), and Mark Abraham (bass, vocals), a lineup that gives Jubilee Riots huge instrumental and vocal range and also substantial punch, a sort of roots orchestra that’s simultaneously unafraid to embrace the Big Hook. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

That’s certainly evident on “Two Bare Hands,” which feels at times like a bald play for radio attention, with a stripped-down arrangement and an instantly memorable chorus of “You will find sometimes all you have is / Your beating heart and your two bare hands.” There’s a hint of Pat Monahan (Train) in the appealingly earnest vocals.  

This relatively mainstream sound makes it all the more notable that Penny Black is a concept album, with songs built around phrases and scenarios taken from personal letters submitted by fans. You might think there aren’t enough people still writing traditional letters for the band to put together an album based on them, but to the contrary, they managed to find some rich material to mine.

And the material wasn’t all serious stuff, either—“President’s Shoes” is a playful, lilting number with a bit of a Jon Troast feel; in other words, endearing and unself-consciously whimsical. They also decorate the arrangement in interesting ways, adding electronic keyboards and brightly echoing trumpet. Next up, “Unsteady” veers back towards the rootsy core of their sound with a country-rock feel and guest vocals from Heather Robb providing a female counterpoint.

The trumpet-led, expansive opening to “Traveler” sounds like the stirring soundtrack to a Western movie, before breaking things down and segueing into a bitter letter from the road from son to father: “I forgive you, but on a night like this / I cannot pretend that I miss you / And you will not see me soon.” Around two minutes in, the song’s build gives it a bit of a Neil Diamond feel, but not in a bad way; it fits the mood of this declaration of independence by an earnest young man (“I was miles away / Years before I left”).

From there, Jubliee Riots genre-hop a bit. The expansive “Cut The Lights” features a rather Big Country-ish, airy ’80s feel built around a keening, accordion-like synth. “Astray” is a Celtic-flavored immigrant song that appears to be about Holocaust survivors (“Just as sure as the ink on my arm / I believed you were gone”). The mid-tempo, philosophical “Lived A Life” has a yearning, gently elegiac quality, while “Rapture” leans to the bluesier side of the group’s considerable range.

Album-closer “Song Plays On” again personifies the group’s new name, a rousing number that builds steadily to a full-throated jam in a second half that’s genuinely riotous. On their debut on their new moniker, Jubilee Riots manages the trick of channeling an energetic, rootsy jam-band vibe into a series of well-constructed songs. The band’s unusual instrumentation and creative arrangements keep Penny Black lively and full of unexpected joys.

Rating: B

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