When Carrboro's Bevel Summers released their seven-track debut EP last year, the band centered around two guys with old-timey ambitions, surrounded by a set of friends. The dueling songwriting team of Jeb Brinkley and David Hutcheson sang of liquor-high times and hard-women lows alongside acoustic guitars and soaring fiddle, delivering tunes that charmed through tradition.
Much has changed in the several months since that promising start: Hutcheson left to study poetry in a New York graduate school. Brinkley, meanwhile, has pushed the band from a stripped-down project of songwriting roots to a full-grown outfit, an approach that takes hold with The Cards, Bevel Summers' first full-length. Brinkley still holds court as the main writer, but this material is much more open to the sway of the entire band. There are more voices, new instruments and a wider palette of influences.
The Cards opens with the traditional "Fair and Tender Ladies." Alicia Best's lone vocal warns maidens of the risks of love while an organ hums the tune. The record quickly shifts with "Look Me in the Eye," an upbeat fiddle jam chased by the bluesy rock of "Tomboy"—an ode to a girl that's "more a man than I." That haphazard sample of styles is only a taste of ventures to come, from the '50s rock 'n' roll of "Me and Robbie" to the jazzy horns of "Parachute."
A keen sense of songcraft unites this magpie collection. The gentle "Hard to Come By," for instance, expertly drops a down-on-his luck narrator into a warm melody. Album ender "Julia" circles back for the steady trot of banjo strings and a bleeding-heart melody, lifted by harmony. The electric bass lines, gypsy jazz flares and earnestly kind lyrics could quickly veer toward disaster, but The Cards largely avoids the ditches.
Indeed, in the best of moments, Bevel Summers find a mien previously populated by the Grateful Dead, where congenial folk and country cozy up to jazz and rock music. It's a balance that's not hard to come by but hard to maintain. So far, Bevel Summers has.