Over the past decade and a half, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of rootsy adornments in what would otherwise be standard pop and rock songs. Those decorations often come off forced, as though the artist were simply aiming for crossover numbers by adding a little twang.
Not so with the music of Chapel Hill-based symphonic-roots collective Puritan Rodeo: Twangy guitar, banjo and mandolin share equal partnership with cello, violin, decidedly non-country keyboards and whatever else best serves a song. Nothing feels welded. So when a banjo sidles in to join the rumba drums at the beginning of "Redline," or when a violin gets the solos on the centerpiece "Lucky and the Blessed," it feels natural. Even the shared lead vocals of John Pardue and Gillian Egan—his singing conversational but versatile enough for the job, hers pretty without being distractingly gorgeous—typically function as just another part in the ensemble cast.
Songwriting is Pardue's domain only, though. He's a bit of a slave to the rhyme, leading to the occasional clang, like his "tonic and gin" transposition just to rhyme with "win" in the casino queen number "Ladyluck." But his "Lucky and the Blessed" chorus washes away any such sins: "I know you're thinking you've done your best/ And I've been drinking just like you guessed/ No, I ain't lucky and you ain't blessed/ But we'll get along with the rest."
Everything—the approach, the co-leads, the words—wows on "Once in a While," a stylistically ambitious dialogue between Pardue and Egan. That cut is second only to the truly grand finale, "Pooreyes." Blending rock, orchestral pop and roots with a discerning ear, it's a dead ringer for a lost track from Toronto's longstanding Blue Rodeo. "If I can get back all my time and all my money," Pardue sings mid-song. No worries: There'll be few calls for refunds here.