It only takes a few biographical bullet points to understand the musical evolution of Sycamore Smith. The singer/songwriter from Marquette, Mich., fell under the spell of Punk in the late 1980s and formed The Muldoons with a couple of classmates from Marquette Senior High School. In the early ’90s, The Muldoons became a steady presence on the Punk scene in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The trio called it quits in 1997 but resurfaced completely transformed two years later. With Marc Smith now using the first name Sycamore, he and fellow Muldoon Scott Uren (who also changed his name, opting for the pseudonym Scotty Alan) reintroduced The Muldoons as a two-man acoustic band performing energized, sometimes comedic Folk Rock with both members singing, playing guitar and providing old-timey augmentation like kazoo riffs and minimalist percussion (such as a simple, single bass drum), usually all at the same time.
The musical makeover and the singers/songwriters’ name changes made it seem like they were mafia informants preparing for witness protection relocation by undergoing intense plastic surgery to render themselves unrecognizable. But the duo had a good run and kept a lot of old fans, releasing a pair of albums before again splitting in 2004.
The drastic shift from Punk to a rootsier, acoustic-based Folk sound seems to have become a common rite of passage for young Punk musicians these days, with so many performers deciding to trade in volume and distortion for the more naked and often more immediate approach of America’s great Folk pioneers. It’s not hard to understand why — Folk and Punk share many qualities. Like Rap lyrics, the words in early Folk and Punk songs were inspired by the issues and circumstances of the times, delivered (like the music) with a bluntness that showed a certain urgency. And both styles shared an “everyman” quality, identifying with and speaking for the poor, the blue-collar workers and the other “common folks” of society and providing a means of expression that required only passion, not serious formal training.
Like Uren, Smith struck out on his own after the break-up, performing his songs as a solo acoustic act and recording them for a string of releases.
Smith’s lyrical skills are incredibly engaging — he’s a true poet and storyteller, in line with the imaginative spin Bob Dylan brought to Folk lyrics and telling stories instead of just ranting or stringing pretty words together.
But Smith’s songs are far from retro-friendly, period-piece knock-offs of ancient Americana tunes — early Punk-era influences come through as well, something that is most evident when played by Smith’s latest band, The Redettes. Christened after the women’s sports team nickname at his old high school, Smith formed the trio with experienced local musicians Matt Bullock and Jesse DeCaire.
The Redettes reincorporate those early Punk-era influences of Smith’s first band, but it’s a subtle, skillful integration. As the group’s brand new seven-song release Ed shows, The Redettes wouldn’t have been out of place on the Stiff Records roster with its casual resemblance to the “Pub Rock” that shadowed and occasionally intermingled with the Punk movement in ’70s England (think Nick Lowe or early Elvis Costello). Fans of U.K. faves The Libertines will also appreciate the Reds’ literature-inspired lyrics and swagger (though the Reds’ swagger is much more chill and harmonious). The melodic, unfussy straightforwardness also shares some of the impish charm of Jonathan Richman’s influential Modern Lovers and you can hear a tinge of’70s Power Pop artists like The Only Ones and The Undertones. While there’s a rootsy, twangy aura hovering throughout, it is rarely blatant.
Though delivered with a high level of skill, the band has an endearing shagginess that helps give the songs an extra boost of immediacy and energy. Smith’s wit still comes through on certain tracks (see: “I’m up to my earballs in debt”), but it’s the imagery and wordplay that is most impressive, such as this snippet from “The Brothers Ape”: “They forge their daggers with their fists/And sharpen razors on their wrists/Cobras lift their heads and hiss/To cheer the Brothers Ape.” If this music thing doesn’t work out, Smith could just collect his songs’ words together, release them as a book and become a professional poet.
Ed is being released with Cincinnati’s Phratry Records, which largely puts out music by local bands. The Redettes are one of a handful of the label’s “out of town” acts, two of which are likely how Phratry was introduced to Smith’s trio. Redette Jesse DeCaire is a Phatry fave — his other bands, SAH and The Terminal Orchestra, both have recordings on Phratry.Ed is available on CD or as a download via redettes.bandcamp.com. The show is being held at Goetz Alley, the D.I.Y., all-ages-friendly space beneath Park Vine that began presenting live music late last year.
THE REDETTES play Goetz Alley (in the basement of Park Vine) Friday, May 6 with guests R. RING, SWEAR JAR, JERRY PANIC and ARMY COACH.