Oneside | First, to Last (s/r)

cd_oneside.jpgWhen it comes to banjo, there can be too much of a good thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If there’s one thing Oneside should take away from their new album, it’s that when it comes to banjo, there can be too much of a good thing.

Still, First, to Last, the Boston-based idie-Americana group’s full-length debut, possesses so many positive attributes that it’s pretty easy to overlook the fact that there is scarcely a second on the album that the banjo is not playing.

The band has a unique sound that melds early R.E.M. with early Wilco’s alt-country in melodically pleasing and dreamy song structures. Lyrically, it holds its own and delivers concise and well-packaged songs. Fans aren’t treated to longer, drawn-out jams like banjo artists have frequently offered, as Oneside instead prefers to offer a look at how the banjo can be used in a more trimmed mainstream arrangement.

The problem is that the band’s approach isn’t executed perfectly. In the mix, the banjo is among the more dominant instruments, and at times outdoes the lead vocal, and certainly the guitars. Combined with the fact that the banjo is heard more often than the vocals (it plays behind the lyrics, in addition to accompanying most solos), it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine banjo player Chris Hersch is the most tired member of Oneside after a show.

It’s not entirely disadvantageous, as Hersch is a talented musician, and there are times when the banjo unites with lead singer Ned DeBary’s unique and lightly soulful voice to create a comfortable balance. The use of the banjo with Oneside’s polished version of Americana does create a strong sonic identity for the band, as Oneside turns out to be a unique Northeastern group doing its own smoothed-out version of the Midwest.

But what results from the banjo being over-elevated to a nearly kitschy status is that all the positives about Oneside are lost on the distraction that the banjo often presents. The wonderful lyrics, succinct song structure and nearly perfect ethereal construction are all strained by the fact that the persistent banjo at times makes the whole thing feel gimmicky.

Diehard banjo fans will, of course, mark this album as a must-purchase for their collection, as well they should. It will find a home with many fans of the new chapter of neo-Americana that includes newgrass and alt-country, and it’s a spot the album deserves.

With a fresh burst of energy and charming songs such as single "Into the Night" and the controlled foot-stomp of opener "The Letter," Oneside shows a range that should bring in fans of Nickel Creek as well as cater to the indie rock crowd, provided they’re sold on the banjo.

With such a diverse palette at work in their album, there’s no doubt Oneside’s flavor is a much-welcomed presence. But if they want to stick around, it seems a little "less is more" might be due for the banjo. | Jon Baird

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