The buzz in Nashville is that Pinmonkey may be the first country act from the alternative side to break through to the mainstream. Of course, the reason may be that they're not really all that alternative, despite the name. Whereas the band's compatriots are often drawn to country music for its themes of obsession and self-destruction, Pinmonkey cultivates a sound that's all about beauty and romanticism.
What strikes you first is the passionate tenor voice of lead singer Michael Reynolds, so unlike the deadpan approach of Gillian Welch or the quirky downbeat gloom of the Bad Livers' Danny Barnes. Reynolds lands vocally in a great spot halfway between bluegrass high tenor and middle-of-the-road balladeer, with piercing tremolo rather than soothing vibrato as its primary ornament of intensification, and yet a sweetness that brings British Invasion pop to mind. His voice makes Pinmonkey's music seem familiar on the second hearing, and sometimes on the first.
The sound that backs Reynolds is based on the combination of electric guitar shadings with splashes of acoustic color that defines alt-country, but band members also contribute gentle harmonies that, for anyone who lived through the 1970s, will evoke the Eagles. It may seem strange, even with the reuse-and-recycle aesthetic of today's music, that soft country-rock of the 1970s should have come around again once more, but there is certainly a good deal of it in Pinmonkey's carefully smoothed-out sound.
What makes it work is its unselfconscious quality; Pinmonkey's music is simple and from the heart, and it adopts classic country archetypes — trains, the devil woman, the cheap motel, the hometown — with an ease that once again recalls the best of 1970s country-rock. The group's debut CD actually contains quite a variety of song types. There's a pleasantly motorlike cover of the Carter Family's "Lonesome Pine Special," a terrific new neoclassic country piece from Gillian Welch's pen called "Two Days from Knowing," several romantic creations by mainline Nashville writers, and four originals. Reynolds attacks each with equal energy and commitment, and the group's music hangs together as a collection both varied and coherent. It's hard to imagine that any other alternative performers could have pulled off the slow homecoming ballad "Augusta," or would even have tried. But when Reynolds sings, "Oh, Augusta, take me in / 'Cause I never can seem to win," it's believable and refreshing.
Pinmonkey returns to the Ark on Sunday, May 19.