An eclectic rummage through Chuck Melchin’s Bean Pickers Union oeuvre.
The Bean Pickers Union are really singer-songwriter and musician Chuck Melchin, and a revolving band of musical accomplices, who have released three albums and two EPs starting with their 2007 debut, ‘Potlatch’. Chuck Melchin has been playing music for many years in various guises, primarily in the American Northeast, and while he has received critical acclaim for his various musical endeavours, the variety of his roots-based music, and ever-changing line-up of his chosen vehicle The Bean Pickers Union, has meant that his fanbase has been small though dedicated. ‘Greatest Picks’ is an attempt to start to remedy that state of affairs as it includes 14 previously released tracks, personally selected by Melchin, and ends with 4 newly recorded tracks to maintain the interest of existing fans. The selection maintains The Bean Pickers Union eclecticism as the tracks cover a whole range of roots music styles, including country-rock, telecaster workouts, ballads, bluegrass, and plenty of good acoustic pickin’ on guitar, banjo and mandolin, and 22 musicians are listed as playing with Melchin on ‘Greatest Picks’. Chuck Melchin does not invoke musical variety for the sake of it though, he is a skilled songwriter who simply ensures his songs are set in their most appropriate settings.
The first track, 2019’s ’16 Pounds Of Mary’, is a road song involving the transportation of cannabis by a single mother experiencing hard times with a lap-steel guitar invoking the sound of Ry Cooder’s ‘Paris Texas’. Next, there are hints of tex-mex in the guitars of ‘Burning Sky’, followed by the background needle crackles of the country blues track ‘Reaper’. The musical variety continues with the piano, cello and violin backing Melchin’s vocals and acoustic guitar on Strange’. Leonard Cohen guitarist Bob Metzger is on hand for the country rock of ‘I’m Sorry’ with its explicit lyrics. Seattle-based power pop artist Eric Lichter is on piano, bass and drums for ‘Photograph’ and its meditation on loss. The banjo playing of Bow Thayer brings a bluegrass feel to ‘Tranquility’. The atmospheric feel is maintained with the lap steel ache of ‘Philemon’. Southern rock is visited on ‘Independence Day’, which again features Lichter on organ, keyboards, bass and drums. The moody ‘Down’, from 2012’s ‘Better The Devil’, is up next. John Brookhouse’s guitar brings more bite to ‘Warrior’, the sound matching the despair and loss of the lyrics. ‘I Sometimes Just Sits’ features some nice mandolin by Chuck Melchin himself. Chicago roots rock guitarist Gary Goodlow brings his crunch and wail to ‘Glory’ with its organ motifs and Melcher’s acoustic and rhythm guitars. The last of the picks is the nostalgic ‘Broken’ with its fiddle, mandolin and banjo.
The four new tracks are what will interest existing fans. ‘Bulletproof Man’ features electric guitars and Jerry Lee Lewis inspired piano from James Rohr. We stay in a melodic rock mode for ‘I Am James’. Andy Santospago’s electric guitar is featured on ‘Amy Jean’ and the track has a ramshackle feel that is helped along by Melcher’s mandolin. The tempo drops for the final track, the acoustic ‘She’ with its piano, violin and cello giving it a cinematic feel.
At eighteen tracks, ‘Greatest Picks’ is a thorough trawl through The Bean Pickers Union’s previous releases, and with four new tracks, gives an indication of where they are at today. There is a lot of varied music included on this retrospective and it shows the true range and scale of Chuck Melchin’s talents. This very variety may be off-putting for some listeners new to his music, thus defeating the objective of the release. However, as with most things in life, all the best things require some effort, and so it is with ‘Greatest Picks’ which will reward all new listeners who spend time exploring the music it contains. For those existing fans, who probably have the first fourteen tracks, they will definitely want to hear the four new tracks.