Review: Che Apalache Gets Multi-Cultural and Socially Conscious on 'Rearrange My Heart'
A good musician makes the most of his life experiences to influence his music, and Joe Troop has certainly done that. Having grown up steeped in the roots music cradle of Piedmont, NC, Troop has also spent time living in Japan, spent time in Spain, and moved to Argentina in 2010 where he taught bluegrass music. Those experiences have culminated in one of roots music's most unique bands in recent memory, Che Apalache, whose new album Rearrange My Heart releases Aug. 9.
Che Apalache is just as eclectic as Troop himself. Alongside Troop are two Argentinian friends, Franco Martino and Martin Bobrick as well as Pau Barjau from Mexico. This multi-cultural meeting of the minds has produced an album that fuses bluegrass, traditional string band music, Japanese folk songs, candombe, and flamenco into a sound that manages to be immediately recognizable and wonderfully baffling at the same time.
The band's international flair comes through in their lyrics as well. Che Apalache have some strong opinions about the current immigration debate and these opinions deliver the album's two best tracks. The first standout track on Rearrange My Heart is “The Dreamer”, which tells the story of Troop's friend Moises Serrano, whose family entered America when he was a baby to settle in North Carolina. Set to a banjo-forward bluegrass tune, the song contrasts Moises' carefree childhood days of playing hide and seek in the North Carolina hills with his parents' constant fear every time they saw flashing blue lights. The lyrics switch smoothly from English to Spanish and back again, mirroring the multi-lingual experience of the Serrano family. It's a powerful song, with lyrics like “an immigrant child must face a life where dreaming is forbidden” driving the message home.
The other standout track is “The Wall.” Sung in a Stanley Brothers-style four part harmony, it's a strong denunciation of the border wall, a sentiment that isn't a surprise considering 3 of the band's 4 members would be on the other side of it if some folks had their way, which might explain the fervent earnestness of lines like “our leaders are so ripe with sin/they feed us chants to rope us in/but some day soon we'll find my friend/that we're pinned against The Wall.” Even without the social commentary, this song shines because of the airtight harmonies of the band's four members.
But those aren't the only good songs on what is top to bottom one of my favorites of the year so far. “Rock of Ages” would fit right into a Willie Watson-era Old Crow Medicine Show album tracklist, using an old time gospel tune to tell the story of God looking down at the people using his name to spread hate and choosing to pack it up and walk away. “New Journey” was inspired by a friend of Troop's who was dying of cancer and chooses to treat it not as an ending, but as the start of a new journey. “24 de Marzo” commemorates the victims of the Argentinian dictatorship and celebrates the country's Day of Remembrance For Truth and Justice. “The Coming of Spring” is inspired by rural Japanese folk music and features some odd instrumentation and an infectious percussive backbone.
It would take a fearless producer to corral all of these international influences into an album that had any sort of cohesion at all and Che Apalache found it in banjo master Bela Fleck. Over his career, Fleck has done more to redefine what the banjo can be. He's not a prolific producer, only working with projects that, in his words “excites, intrigues, and inspires me”, and after meeting Che Apalache at his Blue Ridge Banjo Camp, he found the band to tick all those boxes.
Rearrange My Heart will be a polarizing album. It's going to be too political for some, too musically “out there” for others. But for those who are willing to take the time to dig into the words and music of these talented youngsters, the resulting payoff is a massive one. I listen to a lot of albums each year and it isn't often that I find something so strange, yet so compelling, that it stops me in my tracks. Rearrange My Heart is one of those rare finds that reminds me that even roots music still has new trails to blaze.
Che Apalache have a number of festival dates this Fall and a few solo shows as well. You can find their full slate of tour dates here.