Competent yet utterly pointless
When Andy Gibbs remade a bunch of his songs on 2021’s Greenfields, he underwent a pretty radical genre change: from falsetto-dominated disco to glittering Americana. He also brought in a ton of guest singers to add authenticity and new vocal textures to those classic BeeGee’s hits. Chris Castino is trying something similar with Fresh Pickles, taking jam-rock cuts from his former band The Big Wu and adding the fiddle and spindly guitars of bluegrass with a little from Chicken Wire. Sadly, the results are nowhere near as successful as Greenfields because the vibes aren’t differentiated enough from The Big Wu, resulting in a record that sinks into homogeneity at a startling rate.
The Big Wu fit into the same ’90s Grateful Dead-inspired jam-rock scene as say, Blues Traveler. They’re loose and silly, with albums that were almost superfluous, as the true magic came out on stage. After the year 2000, they started moving towards country with records like Tool for Evening and especially We Are Young We Are Old. The latter was probably the best yet, with a mix of the fun licks of yesteryear with grittier texture and a more epic, atmospheric feel. It’s a little strange that several of the songs on Fresh Pickles come from We Are Young We Are Old instead of older albums, but there is still potential in adapting those old songs with Castino’s new-found love of bluegrass.
The problem is that none of the contrasting texture from We Are Young We Are Old pops up. Take “Bound for the South” from We Are Young We Are Old; the scuzzy guitars, watery organ and dainty piano play off each other wonderfully in the bridge. The new version is a minute shorter yet feels so much longer, as there’s nothing dynamic to the technically impressive playing as the tempo flatlines. “Jackson County,” another We Are Young We Are Old highlight, has more sorrowful vocals and trades in improvisation for something more pointedly melancholy. This is a welcome change of pace, but there’s nothing that equals the drum hits, squealing guitars and soaring singing in the original.
The songs that are remotely enjoyable are the ones that most resemble the original, which is not how a covers album should work. “Texas Fireball” has the most interesting vocals with fast-paced harmonies conveying urgency, but they are nowhere near as powerful as the original which worked as a perfect opening song that busted in the doors and demanded attention. “Rhode Island Red” goes for a similarly quick tempo, crafting a charmingly silly tall tale about a chicken and is one of the better songs on the basis of its brisk energy. However, it feels so frail in comparison to the electric firepower of the original. The best song on the record is probably “The Ballad of Dan Toe,” and it’s unclear how much of that is due to the original being rather flat, so the fiddle and banjo sound a lot more exciting in comparison.
It might seem unfair to continuously compare these renditions to the original, but that’s because they are so uninteresting to discuss on their own. Everything sounds fine, the guest instrumentalists do their job and Castino’s straightforward and earnest vocals are adequate. Yet, none of it is as compelling as the rambling looseness of The Big Wu, as he does not detract from any song in a meaningful way. The problem with Fresh Pickles— besides a hilariously false title, is that there’s no spark of creativity or novelty to the bluegrass approach. Castino simply dressed up his old songs in a new genre, like a costume. All it does is remind one of the great songs from The Big Wu rather than bring anything of its own to the table.