Chuck Lipsig penned this review.
The problem when writing about Boiled in Lead is how to describe them. Rock and roll? Punk? Blues? Jazz? Traditional? Which tradition? They’ve done everything from Irish to Albanian to Vietnamese to American Traditional. Indeed, there have been few constants with the band. They’ve had three different lead singers and the same number of fiddlers. They’ve had dozens of musicians and singers backing them up on various tracks. About the only consistencies, besides their name and eclectic nature, have been Drew Miller on bass and the fact that the band has been based in Minneapolis. Part of the reason for Boiled in Lead’s variety is that they’ve gone through three distinct phases, one for each of the lead vocalists they’ve had. With Jane Dauphin in the lead (Boiled in Lead and Hotheads), the band primarily performed rocked-up Celtic tunes. With Todd Menton taking over the lead, the group played music from a large variety of ethnic traditions along with punkish side trips. The most recent version, with Adam Stemple at the head, has taken the band to a more blues-rock and American roots style.
The original lineup included Jane Dauphin on guitars and vocals; Brian Fox on fiddle; Dave Stenshoel on fiddle, mandocaster (electric mandolin), and sax; Mitch Griffin on drums; and Drew Miller on bass. To start their first album, Boiled in Lead, there was a scream — It’s the combined scream of Jane Dauphin and Drew Miller– and Boiled in Lead opened with, appropriately enough “The Man Who Was Boiled in Lead.” Dauphin’s and Miller’s slightly discordant voices plus a wonderful Dave Stenshoel fiddle solo established the group’s rock-trad fusion sound.
Also on Boiled in Lead was the lovely “Jamie Across the Water,” which the band has since performed in many different and lovely arrangements. Saxophones played a larger than normal (for a folk group) part on this album with Dave Stenshoel’s solo on “The Walls of Liscarroll/The Connacthman’s Rambles” and the horns (a trio of two saxes and one trumpet) showing up (and off) on “Fisher’s Hornpipe.” Something would be amiss if I didn’t mention the full-steam “Tom & Jerry/ The Nine Points of Roguery,” my favorite on Boiled in Lead, or Jane Dauphin’s wonderful rendition of the love ’em and leave ’em ballad, “As I Roved Out.”
For all that this was mainly a Celtic album, there were several hints of how Boiled in Lead would eventually expand its sound with the Hungarian dance “Arpad’s Guz,” as well as the old Yardbirds song, “Over Under Sideways Down.” “Twa Corbies” is an often performed traditional Scots ballad, but BiL uses a lot of electronic distortion to create a uniquely atmospheric version.
The lineup was slightly changed for Hotheads. With Brian Fox no longer in BiL, Dave Stenshoel became the regular fiddler. Also, Todd Menton joined on vocals and guitar. Menton sang only three songs on Hotheads, but his performances on the traditional “House-Husband’s Lament” and Ewan MacColl’s “Go! Move! Shift!” demonstrated a solid, if somewhat unspectacular, command of the material. His performance — indeed the whole band’s — on “Gypsy Rover” is something else. Normally a sweet Irish bowdlerization of “Black Jack Davy,” Boiled in Lead performs the “Atomic Drop” on it, creating a very loud, raucous, and sometimes incomprehensible punk version of the song. This rendition is a matter of taste — to be honest it’s the one BiL track I often skip over, although not always. In any case, “Gypsy Rover” was a demonstration of what Todd Menton was capable of doing with his voice.
Some of the finest Celtic instrumentals BiL did are on Hotheads. “Bank and Star,” combining the reels “Bank of England” and “Star of Munster,” features some hot fiddling from Stenshoel. On “Texas” Menton shows off some fine banjo, an instrument he used too infrequently with BiL. Laura MacKenzie played flute on two tracks (“The Galtee Set” and “Preacher on a Pony”) and did a remarkable job of it.
In 1991 BiL released Old Lead, a compilation of their first two recordings, Boiled in Lead and Hotheads. Two tracks, recorded at the same time as Hotheads but not previously released, were included. One of these, “Lovely Joan” is a sax duet by Stenshoel and Menton that is one of the most intensely sensual, almost erotic, renditions I’ve heard of any traditional tune.
With 1989’s From the Ladle to the Grave Menton, Miller, and Stenshoel were joined by Robin “Adnan” Anders with Jane Dauphin showing up only as backup on a few tracks. Boiled in Lead continued performing Celtic tunes, as their fine performances of “The Pinch of Snuff” and “Dilley Delaney’s/ Cherish the Ladies” demonstrated. However, with strong backing from more than a dozen different singers and musicians, BiL performed electronic versions of tunes from traditions including Bulgarian, Russian-Jewish, and Turkish (“Shopetski Kopanitsa,” “Sher,” and “Bahcevanci (O Ya)” respectively).
The most impressive of the pieces involving non-Western traditions was “Cuz Mapfumo,” combining tunes by Thomas Mapfumo of Zimbabwe and Cuz Teahan of Chicago. Stenshoel’s fiddle solo at the start of the set was one of his strongest. But it is guest Rick O’Dell’s saxophone solo about midway through the track that made it one of the most outstanding tracks Boiled in Lead has done.
Some of the best instrumental solos come in songs with lyrics. “The Spanish Lady” is as close to perfect with Miller’s excellent bass and Menton’s superb singing, while Anders, along with guests Celso Maldonado and Marcus Wise, puts on a percussion clinic. About halfway though, as the band shifts into the polka “The Britches Full of Stitches,” is a lovely, haunting solo that sounds like a flute with some electronically created echo effects. However, from the liner notes, the solo was apparently entirely electronically created, courtesy of Willie Murphy. (Editors note: Drew says that this is Todd Menton tin whistle sample with EFX.) There are also some excellent instrumentals, especially Stenshoel’s fiddling as the band successfully intertwines The Hollies’ “Stop! Stop! Stop!” with a traditional Egyptian tune, “Ma Alee.”
Menton’s voice was solid and rough-edged rather than pretty or polished. But on John Van Orman’s “Madman Mora Blues” and his own “The Microorganism” the edge served him well, giving the songs the right offhand character. And then there’s Menton’s “Pig Dog Daddy.” Perhaps the weirdest song Boiled in Lead has ever recorded has Menton bawling like a farmer on bad acid — and I don’t mean that as an insult, just a description. “Hillbilly-Punk” may be the most succinct definition for this song and still doesn’t do it justice.
For 1990’s Orb, the band was officially down to three members — Anders, Menton, and Miller — although Stenshoel was listed as a guest musician on twelve of sixteen tracks. This was Menton’s finest recording with regard to both singing and songwriting. “Son, Oh Son” is his take on the traditional incest theme of a brother impregnating, then murdering, his sister. Instead of the mother helping her son escape, as in many versions, she promises the son that he will be killed for his actions.
Menton’s “Tape Decks All Over Hell” and “Army (Dream Song)” are close competitors for the strangest sets of lyrics on the album. The former supposedly recounts the consequences of a recording becoming popular in Hell. “Army (Dream Song)” has the sudden shifting and weird juxtapositions that actually occur in dreams. The lyrics “So I found the first lieutenant/ He said, ‘God! They’re gonna bomb us/from their vicious flying llamas!'” throws the perfect (Monty) Pythonesque touch into the deal — but then I’m someone who was once inspired by this song to hang a “Llama Shelter” sign on my cubical at work.
The out-and-out weirdness even extends to the traditional songs. “Hard Times” is not the Stephen Foster song of the same name, but a bizarre look at William McKinley’s assassination. BiL’s rendition of “The Town of Ballybay” with its wooden-legged, oddly romantic heroine, is cheerful and restrained. Another variant of this song is also known in American Trad as “White House Blues.”
On the instrumental side of things, Orb was the most international of BiL’s recordings. Countries represented ranged from Romania (the Jewish klezmer tune “Palestina” in the medley “Klezpolka”) to Armenia (“Harout”) to Vietnam (“Kaen-Lao Gratop Mai”). Two of the strongest of these international tunes are “Sota,” an Albanian dance tune, and “Cunovo Oro,” a quick Macedonian tune in 7/8 time. Kudos go to Robin Anders for his work on the latter, during which he runs through a variety of rhythms and rhythm instruments.
“Sally in the Garden” is noteworthy as a traditional American tune that BiL manages to make sound as foreign as many of the other tunes. “Glasena Klingar” is a beautiful and haunting drinking song that gives “guest” Dave Stenshoel a nice fiddle turn. Genuine guest Sibban Ericsson tops this one off with a lovely rendition of the Swedish lyrics. Orb was also noteworthy for having a very small Celtic contribution.
The 1994 release Antler Dance brought another new lineup. Miller and Anders remained on bass and percussion, respectively. Menton, tired of the road (at least according to some accounts), left the band and was replaced on lead vocals and guitar by Adam Stemple, while Josef Kessler joined the band full time as a fiddler.
BiL never has shied away from rock-inspired arrangements, but Antler Dance is the band’s most rock and roll recording. It opens with a hard-driving electric version of the traditional “Newry Highwayman,” providing the most intense first track since the original “The Man Who Was Boiled in Lead.” Bookending this on the final track is a rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper,” complete with distorted electronics and muffled public service announcements.
The songs in between include the blues rock “Bring it Round” by Stemple and Steven Brust (of whom, more below). Drew Miller and Brust dressed up a scrap of presumably traditional verse they found to create “Hook ‘Em Cow,” a catchy and whimsical song about the slaughter of a well-armed bovine. “Robin’s Complaint” is Anders’s setting for famed fantasy author (and Adam Stemple’s mother) Jane Yolen’s verse about women who should be avoided. But the most bizarre song on this album (a close second to “Pig Dog Daddy” for the weirdest in the group’s entire oeuvre) is “Rasputin,” a mixture of rock and Russian Trad that gives a fairly accurate account of the famed Russian mad monk. This song was also covered (and made a European hit in the late ’70s) by Boney M.
On the instrumental side of things, the highlight is easily the beautiful tune “Drowning,” composed by Drew Miller and featuring him on the electric dulcimer. Not content with having mastered 7/8 time on the previous album, this incarnation of BiL successfully attempts 13/8 time on “Pontiaka,” a traditional tune from Sarajevo. The only false step on this album is the placement of the traditional Bulgarian tune “Neda Voda” and Anders’s Arabian-style “Nasrudin.” Nothing wrong with either piece, but back-to-back they are almost 15 minutes of medium tempo Eastern European/Middle Eastern music. For a band that thrives on a variety of styles and a fair number of up-tempo pieces, this section unfortunately drags.
A little secret: There’s a hidden track about a minute after the end of “State Trooper,” an odd little instrumental piece that sounds one third improvised, one third Klezmer, and one third circus music. I think this explains the otherwise inexplicable liner note comment, “Beware the lurking ether bunny.” The tune is called “Raca,” aka the Serbian “Bunny Hop,” which also appeared as the B side of the “Fuck The Circus” single.
1995’s Songs From the Gypsy is something completely different. The Gypsy is a novel by Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm that included a cycle of songs written by Brust, verses of which provided some of the chapter headings. For Songs From the Gypsy, Adam Stemple set Brust’s words to music, and BiL recorded them for this album.
This wasn’t the first time that Brust and members of BiL had worked together. In the early 1990s Brust and Stemple were in a band named Cats Laughing. Additionally, on Cats Laughing’s recording, Another Way to Travel, Robin Anders had provided extra percussion. Completing this cycle, Lojo Russo, Cats Laughing’s bass player and sometime singer, provided back-up vocals for a couple of tracks for Songs From the Gypsy. (David Stenshoel had also played fiddle for one song on Another Way to Travel, but he didn’t perform on Songs From the Gypsy, making it the only BiL album that he hasn’t been on.)
In any case, this is more of a rock and blues album than a folk one. The best of these songs are the back-to-back pair of “Leanan Sidhe” and “Hide My Track.” The latter especially is an intense piece as Stemple, very ably backed by Russo, conveys determined, prayerful desperation. Josef Kessler’s wailing fiddle only enhances the mood. “The Gypsy” is a remarkable southern-style rock ballad of a deadly card game with its characters well sketched out with only a few lines.
“Back in Town” is a menacing little song that sounds straight out of the bayous. The final track, “Red Lights and Neon,” is another blues-style song, filled with electronic distortion that sounds better after repeated listening. The only traditional piece on Songs From The Gypsy is “Urgos (Springtime), ” a Hungarian tune that features Josef Kessler’s excellent fiddle playing.
If there is one band that defines rock and reel, it is Boiled in Lead. And yet they have recorded a variety of styles from blues rock to traditional Vietnamese tunes. Nine different performers have been members of the band, including three different lead singers, and more than two dozen (32 by my quick count) additional people have provided backing. Yet Boiled in Lead’s quality, originality, and daring have been consistent.
Most recently, Boiled in Lead has released several compilations of their work (that have already been reviewed in Green Man), Alloy and Alloy 2. Although the band is still together, it has been far too long since they recorded a new, original CD. Here’s hoping it’s real soon that they do so.