General Oglethorpe & the Panhandlers, “Whistle the Dirges,” and the wonders of contradiction

Click for a larger pic of Nate Marsh's great cover

I’m not quite sure where to begin with a review of Whistle the Dirges, the first album by the Savannah-based General Oglethorpe & the Panhandlers.

With the complex, evocative lyrics? With the layers of sound — including the occasional accordion, flugel horn and dobro — in the final mix? With the striking emotional range of lead singer Devin Smith’s voice? With the inherent contradictions in the band’s name and in the title of their first album?

For those who don’t know, General Oglethorpe was the visionary founder of Savannah and the colony of Georgia in 1733. The utopian Oglethorpe’s original plan of streets and squares still controls — and magnifies — the diverse interactions that characterize public life in Savannah’s historic district.

Maybe because of the obvious grounding in place, I think of “Mary” as the album’s signature song. It begins like this:

This is a typically Savannah conversation. Two people of vastly different backgrounds cross paths in public; they’ve seen each other before; the older woman echoes Lady Astor’s famous description of Savannah (“a beautiful woman with a dirty face”) as the conversation turns quickly personal, an intimacy made easier by the certainty that the exchange will be cut short by circumstance — and by the certainty that the two will see each other again.

General O’s upbeat sound is a mix of genres — mainly rock and folk, but there’s no easy comparison for me to draw. (For what it’s worth, the band lists Modest Mouse, The Elephant 6 Collective, Arcade Fire, The Beatles, M. Ward, and Andrew Bird among its influences.) Anna Chandler’s backing vocals add resonance to Smith’s occasionally lilting voice. Jak Horner’s bass and Duncan Iaria’s drums sometimes come forward suddenly, only to retreat with abrupt changes in mood and tempo.

The lyrics to "Mary," "Old Threads," and "Over the Counter Silence"

Some of the tracks are perhaps best described as straight up rock and roll, like “Sick Sick Lover,” which opens with a fast pace and intense, sensual lyrics: “i’m sorry for taking all your time/lackluster lips tainted gin & lime/spent a good ten years burying dragonflies/knee-deep in waterbeds and mae west thighs.” Even in the songs that might seem more mainstream, for want of a better word, the lyrics are rich like this with metaphor and symbol. There’s a vibrant unpredictability to the phrasing too — the result is a level of complexity that could open artistic doors for General O even while creating innumerable challenges. I think a few tracks, like “Hush Animal,” get too caught up in the density of sound and of meaning, but that song is followed on the album by “Red Hot,” with its steadier beat and catchy, experience-over-education lyrics: “well I’ve learned more from a cigarette/than all my schooling taught.”

As much as I like General O when the tempo is fast, I think I like the slow moments even better. Like the vulnerability of Smith’s voice in passages from “Mary” or at the beginning of “Over the Counter Silence” as he sings, “oh the mouths of the soles of my shoes say/take me home/and you said what the world needs/is an over the counter silence.”

I had been vaguely aware of General Oglethorpe & the Panhandlers for months before I heard them in a perfect setting — surrounded by a contemplative audience on a rainy Sunday night at The Sentient Bean here in Savannah. They were on the bill with singer-songwriter Dare Dukes, whose upcoming show and great album Prettiest Transmitter of All I’ll be writing about soon. It will be interesting to watch how General O’s live show develops in the coming months, as they develop new material and as promoting the album inevitably takes them to new venues.

The release party for 12-song LP Whistle the Dirgesvinyl with a digital download CDs for now — is scheduled for Saturday, February 5th at Tantra Lounge on Broughton Street.