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The Wilhelms “Contortionist Blues”
Release date: June 15, 2018 Perdition Records 0017
Contact: john.wendland at gmail dot com
There are no Wilhelms in the Wilhelms, just a Ploof (Andy) and a Wendland (John). For better than 25 years, these two gentlemen have been making music together, and their partnership has weathered many twists and turns. For their second album, “Contortionist Blues,” the Wilhelms offer up fifteen well-crafted songs of love, of death, of sorrow, and of hope.
The Wilhelms is their acoustic duo – if they feel like giving a song a bigger, electric arrangement, they turn it over to the five-piece band Rough Shop. But here, it’s just Andy and John, taking turns singing lead and offering supportive harmonies. John plays rhythm guitar, the occasional mandolin, and some plaintive harmonica. Andy plays the lead parts on guitar, dobro, and mandolin. There is one guest appearance by Roberta Gordon on backing vocals.
Ploof and Wendland met in 1993, when the latter moved to St. Louis for his full-time job. Their mutual love of folk music forms led them perform together in the band One Fell Swoop, which built an international fan base until it broke up around the turn of the century. Rough Shop followed and continues to perform and record (notably some of the best original holiday music around). The Wilhelms project, however, gives these two friends a chance to gig more often and to prove that their songwriting stands up in simpler arrangements. In 2013, they released “Film At 11,” their debut duo album.
“Contortionist Blues” is more of what made the first Wilhelms record so good. Ploof originals such as “Galloping Gertie,” about the poorly built and ultimately ill-fated Tacoma Narrows Bridge, or “Satan Won’t You Go,” a witty look at the tired nature of evil, or “Falling Down Drunk,” a beautiful and sad tale of failure, are musical examples of packing entire short stories into just a few words and expressive melodies. Wendland alternates between hilarious tales of what can be purchased in a “Five-Hundred Dollar Funeral” and insightful looks at the ways men and women can misunderstand each other in “Came Out of Nowhere.” He also pays tribute to his late wife Marie in the stunning “Best Spent Time.”
Long-time friend Michael Friedman contributes some co-writes with Wendland, as well. “Hard Dog to Keep on the Porch” is among the catchiest songs on the record, while “Meet Me on the South Side” captures the spirit of the singer/songwriter/ photographer Bob Reuter who passed away a few years ago. Friedman and local writer Roy Kasten co-wrote the lovely “Simple Gifts.” Ploof sings a gorgeous version of the Townes Van Zandt song “Snowin’ On Raton.”
Andy Ploof has a lilting tenor voice, and John Wendland sings with a rhythmic playfulness that provides distinctive contrasts as the album goes on. The melodies are not overly complex, but they are all capable of moving the listener, and most of these songs have choruses designed to instill the urge to sing along, and keep you thinking and feeling all the while.
There is not a moment on this album without grace or humor or truth in it. That’s the Wilhelms’ stock-in-trade.