The May Day Orchestra is a super-group of sorts: The quintet's lineup contains Tim Rakel and Joey Gavin (formerly of Bad Folk), Brien Seyle and Matt Pace (The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra) and Theodore's JJ Hamon. May Day plays roughshod folk tunes with a deliberately Communist bent, in keeping with the band's name. Despite the presence of some of the local rock and folk scenes' most inventive musicians, the arrangements on the vinyl-only May Day, or Songs for Lucy Parsons are mostly spare and stark, moving between low-slung ballads and foot-stomping fightin' songs. The slow-pulsing drone of the eight-minute opener "Cause for Alarm" feels static and overlong, though the pivot-point trumpet and trombone flourishes, along with Seyle's twang-laden fiddle, gives the song a much-needed harmonic handhold. The band perfects this formula of concrete-fisted guitar strums and solemn brass-and-string accompaniment on the excellent "Death Letter," which sounds like an experimental castoff from Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20, 1992.
Rakel's ragged, urgent delivery on a song like the galloping "Sentence (This Land Is Not Free)" conveys equal parts indignation and disgust on behalf of these hard-laboring, long-suffering narrators. And with the somewhat-recent breakup of Bad Folk, it's nice to have a new home for Rakel's alt-country whirlwinds and solemn dirges. But ultimately it's hard to figure out the aim of these songs about workers, robber barons and the means of production: They are neither uplifting like protest songs, nor galvanizing like politically charged punk. It's well to remember that Billy Bragg, the world's finest socialist pop star, got a lot more interesting when he stopped singing exclusively about the power of the unions and engaged the human heart.
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