The Wilhelms Film at 11 www.thewilhelmsmusic.com
The appearance of the otherwise unheralded debut by the Wilhelms through my transom was something a surprise. It's not as if the duo's members, Andy Ploof and John Wendland, have lacked an outlet for their collaborations. First in One Fell Swoop and later in the still-active Rough Shop, Ploof and Wendland have traded songs, stories and guitar licks for more than a decade.
You'd be hard-pressed to find two men more entrenched in American songcraft; listen to Wendland's Memphis to Manchester on KDHX (88.1 FM) for a three-hour education each Thursday, or stop in for a clawhammer banjo class at Ploof's Music Folk shop in Webster Groves. But in the years since Rough Shop has swelled to a working quintet and taken on elements of electric roots and soul music, these songwriters haven't lost their love of acoustic folk music. Film at 11 is an unfussy, stripped-down affair made for two voices and two guitars. Both men, firmly rooted in middle age and not pretending otherwise, sing about the past with some hard-won wisdom instead of mawkish nostalgia.
Film at 11 will be available digitally, but it's worth buying the CD if only for the liner notes, in which Wendland and Ploof offer insight into each song's genesis or influence (Dana Smith's cover painting and Nate Burrell's band photo round out a smartly designed package). You won't need to read that Wendland was inspired by Neil Young once "Mr. DJ" starts -- that lyrical harmonica line is a good enough wink -- but it serves as an apt mission statement for this project. The song yearns for a kind of musical honesty, a warts-and-all approach that takes human imperfection as a working definition for "soul music."
That thread is picked up with the closing track, "St. Louis Song," which celebrates Wendland's adopted hometown by taking the refined and the seedy in the same view. As on Rough Shop's LPs, Ploof sings a little lower, a little slower and plumbs deeper recesses of the heart. This simple setup is all the backing he needs for the emotional rawness of "Clean Slate," with Wendland's harmonies tucked in behind Ploof's resonant vocals. Tracks like these, alongside covers by T-Bone Burnett, Norman Blake and St. Louis legend John Hartford, help make the album sound less like a statement and more like two old friends passing songs back and forth. We're lucky enough to listen in.
The Wilhelms CD Release Show 7 p.m. Sunday, November 3. $15. The Focal Point, 2720 Sutton Boulevard. 314-560-2778.
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