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Woodblind is among the busier musical acts in the Twin Ports, popping up at one local venue or another since forever. It’s unusual because lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Jason Wussow owns Wussow’s Concert Cafe. He doesn’t mind showing up in competing venues, nor has he made his group the house band for his own place. He’s an unconditional patron saint of, and participant in, the local music scene.
The band is the duo of Wussow on guitar and Veikko Lepisto, a seasoned professional Los Angeles upright-bass player. It’s a versatile setup that allows them to invite numerous other musicians to join in, both live and on their albums.
Ska comes from Jamaica in the 1950s and ‘60s, before reggae. It exploded into popularity as a variation on punk in the ‘80s and ‘90s with bands such as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fishbone and Sublime.
Woodblind is able to do something unique with the genre, a north woods version that’s infectious but closer to original ska than punk, a little goofy and great fun.
At first I was surprised by the way the album sounds. Recorded at Rich Mattson’s Sparta Studio, it’s murky, like it was channeled through a cardboard tube.
To make sure I checked back with their first album, 2016’s Big Voice, which has a clean, crisp sound. With Bluebird they apparently wanted a fuller, fatter sound, closer in spirit to a ‘60s vinyl album.
I was able to tailor the sound to my tastes by minimizing the bass and maxing out the treble. If you want to listen to it as intended, don’t touch that dial.
The heightened reverb and echo works great for the violin by Eli Bissonet and the electric lead guitar by Jim Cooper, two of the many guest musicians, giving their work a layered, trippy vibe. It also works for the minor key songs, making them a little spookier. Ditto for Wussow’s whistling, a frequent device.
Much of the music is blindingly fast and relentlessly cheerful, almost speed versions of Ren and Stimpy’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy” song with less irony. The title track is about the bluebird of happiness, as you might expect. “Magnificent” and “You’re the One for Me” are snappy love songs.
“Happy Fun Song” opens with the shouted line, “Super duper explodo positivo!” and the chorus states the title, “Happy happy happy happy fun song.” So there’s a lot of happy on this album, but it’s to counter depression. The chorus to “Smile” goes, “Cuz I know you’ve been down.” That’s what we need in this coronavirus summer.
Track 2, “Another One,” is a variation on a line in Country Joe & The Fish’s ‘60s classic “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” in which Joe sang “Roll another one, just like the other one.” Woodblind sings, “Pour another one like the other one,” then alternates “pour” with “roll” and “play.” While Joe’s song was a stoned, languid send-up of country music, Woodblind’s song is brisk and upbeat. It’s a perfectly good party song, but they overstate the case with irritating sound effects, beer pouring into a glass and vocal imitations of pop tops opening. The song is lively enough without the salad dressing.
A few other songs could have used restraint as well. “Summer Song” is sung in an imitation-Harry Belafonte accent, accompanied by a marimba. It’s meant to be tribute rather than cultural appropriation, but in either case the cliché is a little thick.
Because of the echoey sound I wasn’t sure of the lyrics: “Cold winds blow, snowflakes fly … ” Then does it go, “There she goes away from me a little while” or “that shit goes away from me a little while?” I prefer the latter, in which case it would be a winter song, something to put yourself in a summer state of mind.
Strangely enough, it’s the dark songs that shine the best. “Downtown” is an asskicker in minor key that highlights lightning-fast licks by Lepisto, Bissonet and Cooper. “Queen of the Iron Range” is an immediate Northern Minnesota essential. (Up there with the song “Big Voice,” anyway.) “Say It’s Just a Dream” is ska acid rock. “Old John” is almost a spaghetti-western theme, with juicy lyrics starting off with, “Old John was a son of a bitch.” “Dust” uses a Biblical theme for an existential message, reminding us that we come from dust and will return there.
The guest list reads like a who’s who of the music scene: Tyler Dubla, Jen West, Bryan “Lefty” Johnson, Cory Coffman, Tim Stratioti, Matt Wasmund, Dave Adams, George Ellsworth, Germaine Gemberling and Jake Larson. So as much as we gripe about the creative decisions, it’s a pedigree project. Relax, kick back, pour another one and let that north woods breeze wash over you, mon.