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Issue: April 2008

Music From the Hills and Into the Streets

The Olympia Three (Dunkenstein Records)
The Olympia Three

Louisville's the Olympia Three sound as if they came down out of the hills of Kentucky with a traditional bluegrass upbringing and quickly grew into a modern folk rock adulthood out in the modern city streets. While the ever-present, frantic mandolin quickly identifies the music as folk rock, the subtleties within the songs make the sound much more interesting.

Phillip Olympia's vocals are one such point of interest; while he glides fairly smoothly through these 10 tracks, it's easy to imagine his nearly imperceptible rasp and intonations in an emo band - or in a Perry Ferrell tribute band. Normally the former would constitute harsh criticism coming from me, but it shouldn't be taken that way - in this case it merely creates an interesting musical paradox.

Another key to the Olympia Three's music is the modern arrangements. With a lot of bluegrass, you know early into the song pretty much what you're going to get and from there the finger-picking and harmonies take over. These songs aren't so immediately familiar and so they take on darker overtones. For instance, the tempo shifts in "I'm Still Here" create an unexpected change of pace the helps to divert the listener briefly from the darkness of the lyric, which is a narrative about the difficulty of facing up to and conquering a long-standing problem. (One gets the feeling this is about a dysfunctional relationship that should end but as yet hasn't.)

The Olympia Three also does a good job of transition. From "Here," the listener is taken into the lovely cover of Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings," which creates a welcome break in tone.

Another notable track is "When Was Yesterday?," which could have been a rock hit from the mid-1990s had it been recorded with electric guitars and drums. The dark tone, the slightly abstract lyric and the modern-sounding chord changes mark it as a rock song sleeper.

The album closes with "All I Need," a synthesized builder of a song that, frankly, sounds like it was ripped right out of the early 1980s at moments and backed with Beach Boys-inspired backing vocals. Once again, a curveball.

All in all, this is a solid listen and definitely something to check out if you're looking for something just a tad different. The Olympia Three successfully blends an unexpectedly wide array of influences and musical styles into a work that ultimately pleases, even when it's not going in the direction you expect it to. Or maybe that's precisely why it works. You decide.

Check out more on the Olympia Three over at www.myspace.com/olympiamusic.

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