We’ve seen artists cope in many different ways with the pressures of the pandemic and lockdown; here’s another one. Chuck Melchin has already done the long-distance collaboration thing with Michael Spaly of Green Monroe as the Los Brujos project in 2019, so now he’s pulled together another project. It’s a Bean Pickers Union retrospective, pulling songs from the albums “Potlatch” (2007), “Better the Devil” (2012), “Caterwaul” (2017) and “Archaeology” (2019), As an added bonus, there are four unreleased bonus tracks. With a total of eighteen songs, it’s into double-album territory; fortunately there’s so much great material to choose from over the fourteen-year period that the album has a very cohesive feel that retrospectives often lack.

Describe the album in one word? Varied; there’s a long list of players and an even longer list of instruments used. The arrangements and stylings cover most of the Americana spectrum and a bit more besides; “Independence Day” is a full-on rock band arrangement with over-driven guitars and keyboards, hinting at Bruce and the E Street Band musically and even lyrically with a story of cars, girls, beer and marriage in a small American town. Chuck Melchin is a songwriter who knows how to tell a story in a 3-minute song and has a sure touch with his subjects, picking out uncommon themes that are still relatively easy to relate to.

A perfect example is “Philemon”, the story of a survivalist left stranded in the wilderness when Armageddon didn’t actually come. The minimalist backing sets the tone beautifully for the quiet desperation of a man left with only his bible, his ammunition and his shattered illusions. The menacing “Reaper”, starting with sampled surface noise, is a murder ballad telling the story of two friends who take different paths with tragic consequences and ends with violent death. “Warrior” is, on the surface, the tale of a Confederate soldier returning after the Civil War. The martial drums set the tone for the piece, while the intro hints at Al Wilson’s soul classic, “The Snake”. It’s a familiar tale, and a very angry one, of the wounded warrior spurned by society that still happens today with veterans from Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan.

These offbeat tales are mixed with personal material and acute observations, leaving a very rounded and satisfying impression. It’s eighteen well-crafted songs covering a wide range of styles and themes and that’s more than enough to keep any serious music fan happy.

“Greatest Picks” is out now.

Here’s the video for “Warrior”:

We reviewed the latest EP by Los Brujos (Chuck Melchin of Bean Pickers Union and Michael Spaly of Green Monroe) just over a month ago and Allan was impressed with the five songs created by online collaboration reflecting the conditions the world’s enduring at the moment. The EP’s full of great songs, understated playing and some lovely harmonies and you really should give it a listen. Chuck Melchin has returned the compliment by sharing his five lockdown lifesavers:

 Five things that made 2020 tolerable, even enjoyable:

 The Critter Cam – We live in a pretty rural part of New Hampshire, a small state in the northeastern US. Our house is built into the side of a large hill, and is surrounded by forest on three sides. The music studio is in the back on the basement level, and has a sliding glass door to the outside, from which the view, because of the slope of the land, looks like you are standing about halfway up the trees. So, I call the studio the Tree House. Anyway, we occasionally see deer up near the house and wondered who else is living nearby. So I installed a critter cam – a night vision, motion detection camera that takes stills and video of anything moving near it. So far we have recorded raccoons, possums, porcupines, snowshoe hare, foxes, coyotes, a weasel and, of course, lots of deer. We walk an old logging road for about a mile down to the camera about twice a month and change out the disc, then come back and spend a couple of hours going through the results. It’s fascinating. We have also captured video of a human animal, attempting to steal the camera, and not being able to figure out how to untie the straps. He actually waves as he gives up and walks away. It’s a small town, I suspect we will see him around at some point. That should be an interesting conversation!

Food – For most of 2020, the restaurants have been closed, and grocery stores have been somewhere with a strong potential to contract the virus, so we have avoided both as best we can. About once a month Suzanne drives into town and is at the grocery store when they open. She sketches out the layout of the aisles ahead of time and moves through the store like a prizefighter, no wasted time, no unavoidable contact with other humans. She gets our non-food goods – toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning products, etc. We have almost all of our meats and produce delivered weekly by our local farm cooperative. Schwan’s delivers ice cream and frozen fish twice a month. We have always enjoyed cooking but in 2020 we have upped our game. We have made some epic meals these last few months. Scallop pie, Mexican lasagna, lamb meatballs. We play a game where we try to guess what we would have paid in a restaurant, and then compare to what it cost us to make it. Friday nights are now free and have become pizza night. We put on music and hang in the kitchen, slowly assembling the pies and cooking, and talking. The Spanish have a word for it – sobremesa. It’s the time you spend after a meal, hanging out and enjoying each other’s company without hurry. We make Fridays a night-long sobremesa.

Our Dogs – when you apply to a rescue agency to adopt an Australian Cattle Dog they always ask if you have any experience with the breed. For good reason. Cattledogs are highly intelligent, high energy, busy and strong. Strong physically and strong willed. They have been bred to work, so they need a job. If you don’t give them one, they will make up their own, and you might not like it. We have two. Mr BoJangles (you can call him Bo) is a three year old male Cattledog / Border Collie mix. Hatty is a three year old female Cattledog / Cattledog mix.  By which I mean she’s got lots of cattledog sass. I call it Hattitude. They are absolutely wonderful dogs, endlessly entertaining. Loyal and brave. Protective around strangers at first but will give you their whole hearts once they meet you. We had Bo first, and recognized that he really needed a friend, because he loves to play so much that he goes crazy when he sees another dog on a hike or walk. Hatty is now his best bud, and they play hard inside of our huge fenced in yard, and keep the property free of those dangerous rabbits. They are the best songwriting partners, are fantastic on hikes (you can not wear them out!) and are always ready for an adventure. They keep us grounded in reality in this seemingly unreal time, reminding us to stay in the moment. If you could ask them what time it is, they would tell you it is right now.

Here’s a video featuring Bo and Hatty:

The Time Before – YouTube

Remote recording – When I started playing in bands as a kid, there was no way we could have made a record. You needed to be signed to a record contract, and have someone else pay for the studio time. Now of course anybody with a cheap mic and a computer can make a record. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is debatable, but during this isolation time, I’m awfully glad to have a studio at home. For the last few years I have been slowly improving the quality of my gear, and learning more about the engineering and producing end of music making, with the goal of transitioning from gigging musician to more of a producer for solo artists looking to make demos or to add instrumentation to an existing demo. Previously I was mostly using my home setup to record my new songs for me to refine them or for band mates to learn them.  Last year I did a few tracks at home for a record that was mostly recorded at a studio, and it worked out really well. This year, things ramped up. I did two full – length records and an EP with almost everything recorded here at the Tree House. One record was sort of hastily done just to document some tunes in case the world ended. When the world didn’t end, I did another record of songs I wrote for a band I was in back in the 90’s, with lots of help from friends adding parts in their home studios. That record exceeded my expectations. And this fall, I just released a collaborative EP with my pal Michael in which we co-wrote the songs, and exchanged audio files over the internet, using We Transfer or Google Drive. We did have the mixing and mastering done by a friend at a pro studio, but all the raw tracks were done in the comfort of our own homes. Dogs at my feet, children at Mike’s. I also did some vocal, mandolin and guitar tracks for other folks’ records during the year without changing out of my sweatpants. But don’t tell them that.

Suzanne – I have gone days if not weeks this year without speaking to another soul outside of my home. I would have guessed that the lack of human interaction would make me a little stir crazy. And with both Suzanne and I working from home, that we might need a break from one another, or that the stress and frustrations we are feeling this year would cause us to bicker with each other. Nope. We met in 2001, when she came out from Chicago for the wedding of my bass player and her good friend. I was immediately mesmerized. Nearly 20 years on and that feeling hasn’t changed. I don’t believe I could have endured the challenges of this year without her. Simply put, she is the best person I know. Smart, funny, interesting, empathetic, caring, hard working, honest, and the prettiest girl I have ever seen. I’m feeling like 2021 is going to be alright, but if it wants to try to top 2020, bring it on. I have her on my side.