The musicians on Sweat Equity beg to differ. The gang of eight played a CD-release gala on Dec. 5 at Generations, and they're writing and singing like more than a few genteel coffeehouses are listening. Jeff Suits opens the disc with a daydreamy "Baby Likes the Rain," though his other offering, "Last Chance in West Texas," is even better: his country tenor and buttery guitar work somehow sharpen the sting in the lyrical resignation. Rob Woerther croons an elusive, elegiac "Wooden Crosses on Our Graves" and on "One Word at a Time" pens the disc's most memorable line: "I'd trade my soul to sleep tonight." Jeff Shaw, one of the project's chief instigators, sings the hell out of both "Snow Bound" and "Latigo," and Chris Johnson's guitar playing and vocal style keep expanding exponentially: "High Plains Drifter" is his most cinematic composition,"Hard Luck Song" probably his quirkiest.
The most daring moments arrive on Chuck Reinhart's "Pony to Ride" -- a Zen-pure melody gets the-Band-in-the-basement treatment, which nearly rescues such lyrical head-scratchers as "If the past comes to haunt, we face it down with our guns/I wonder, I wonder how many holes there are in the sun" -- and on Mark Hrabovsky's closing tune, "A Child," the harmonies of Benedictine monks and E.L.O. fuse for a weirdly fetching a cappella blend.
Sweat or no sweat, not everything works. Kentaro Sugiyama's chirpy tenor never makes much of the staggeringly clichéd approach of "Two Separate Trains," though the less strained "Cinnamon Eyes" comes closer to refining his candied folk-pop. Rob Wibracht tosses in two blues-based parodies, but lines like "I want to go back to a time so simple/a time when mannequins had no nipples" aren't funny after a few listenings -- one doubts that those anatomically abstract days were so hot after all.
Some law of nature dictates that compilations can't consistently satisfy, let alone cohere, and that's the case with Sweat Equity. But at 16 songs, it's more engaging and stumbles much less frequently than most folk samplers. But if a bunch of guys with acoustic guitars still sounds as adventurous as, well, a bunch of guys with acoustic guitars, then the sometimes rugged, sometimes sublime Sweat Equity ought to work wonders for your way of thinking.