The Phantom Tollbooth

St. Paul Town
Artist: The Urban Hillbilly Quartet
Label: Fundamental Records / Worldwide Publicity
Time: 16 Tracks / 62:41 min.

The line is clearly drawn:

In their first chorus, The Urban Hillbilly Quartet clearly defines their place in the land and society. However, since the group is clever enough to self-produce a thoroughly engaging first CD, a comparison of this foursome to Squirrel Nut Zippers is more appropriate than to country/folk music pioneers the Carter Family.

Foursome? Make that a sextet, plus six guests, and a background chorus of  nine to beef up the larger production numbers. Like all good Americana, the instrument list includes the prerequisite electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, fiddle, accordion, harmonica, jawharp, Hammond organ, upright piano, tin whistle, bass, pedal steel, sitar, and trombone. In the manner of all great performers on Garrison Keilor's A Prairie Home Companion, also from St. Paul, Minnesota, the band includes such droll accompaniments as "expanding forehead," "wildlife," "bass on a stick," and "floor pie."

The CD begins by exploring the exterior of St. Paul, Minnesota's inhabitants,  then gradually shifts its vision inward, ending with an ersatz folk hymn,  "Because We Weep." In between, tunes such as "Fields at Night," which celebrates a couple's life story set to manic fiddle, "Nightmares," damning the ways of a wandering seducer, and "St. Paul Town," the mournful blues of an adolescent, prove that the Hillbillies have the chops to hold their own against any better known commercial band. Their numerous shows at bars and coffeehouses throughout the St. Paul/Minneapolis region bear this out.

The second half of the album explains why they were asked to play at Cornerstone Festival this year: their dead-on descriptions of the natives  include a telling description of all aspects of their nature, outlining the need for something to fill that God-shaped hole usually kept hidden in polite society. Like all Americana/, the album demands a lot of its listeners. All the musical lines are flawed, requiring the listener to fill in the gaps, or revel in the imperfections, much as you would if family members were playing. The Urban Hillbilly Quartet plays this stuff with authority, creating a good listen, in a quirky kind of way. The subject of  the project is people generally dismissed by society, but the submerged truths make this collection of characters well worth meeting.

By Linda T. Stonehocker (4/22/99)