Calloused from two decades of fretting guitar strings, Daryl Fleming's fingers seem to get itchy when not poking and prodding our cultural wounds like an avant-folk Doubting Thomas. On The Fable of the Bees, Fleming and his all-star new-enlightenment string band The Public Domain set the ideas of 18th-century political philosophers and 19th-century American religious iconoclasts to music -- all with a sweet harmony and a whiskey-drinkin' beat. It's all part of Fleming's plan for The Public Domain: to go beyond anachronism, into something that's as postmodern as it is pre-modernist.
"It's that blurring of the timeline," says Fleming. "Use whatever you want, approach the material however you want, piece together [periods and genres] how you want to. It's borrowing from the past, but playing by rules I'm making up as I go along."
It's no surprise that The Fable of the Bees has the cojones to poke holes in our watered-down pop-music thought processes. Over the years, as his curriculum vitae has grown -- from out-there jazz groups Watershed 5tet and Opek to alt-country mainstays Boxstep and Crawlin' Low -- so, too, has Fleming's trans-anachronistic songwriting breadth. (This is, after all, the man who brought Pittsburgh an alt-country ode to the Founding Fathers, The Elusive Snapping Republic.)
"It's been four years since the last album," says Fleming. "It took two years for the songs to come together, and in those two years, we were playing around town a little bit more -- not that we've ever played that much. And because of that, it coalesced into more of a band sound, a band record, than a solo record with hired guns." Vince Camut's rainy-day pedal steel and dobro, Fleming's fine-tuned harmonies with co-vocalist Jesse Prentiss, anchored by Justin Brown's bass and Jim DiSpirito's drumming, all under the production guidance of John Purse -- a cast of Pittsburgh veterans providing songs skipping between the raucous and the rational.
While The Public Domain is asked to do a lot of heavy musical lifting on Fable, you might not notice on first listen. For example, the disc's opening tracks, "Travels with Charley" and "The Fable of the Bees," could just be a pleasant urban hike through a psych-Americana somewhere between the Mekons and Tom Waits' The Black Rider.
But listen closer, and there's much more going on. The flugelhorn on the band's version of "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" helps transform one of the most enduring folksongs of the British Isles into a desperate jazz ballad, while "(High Time To Be) Crawlin' Low" could be the rowdiest call to drop off the grid ever recorded. And if "Dagobert's Blues" -- either a lament or a guffaw for the mythology of the Merovingian dynasty -- doesn't get the freak-folk revival fans on Fleming's side, those punks just ain't weird enough.
But the thread that ties together Fable is the "Fable of the Bees" itself: Bernard de Mandeville's massive 18th-century poem, presented in two different songs on the disc. The poem hyperbolically presents the idea that the virtuous isn't necessarily culturally productive -- that selfishness is what drives mankind forward; that, as the poem is subtitled, "private vice" is the "public benefit."
"He was like a 17th-century Gordon Gekko," Fleming says, referring to Michael Douglas' Wall Street character. "You know, 'Greed is good.'
"I'd say [the Fable album] is a critique of what I perceive to be shabby critiques of consumerism in the arts -- it's supposed to play the devil's advocate. Everyone and his sister, every 30-year-old in a rock band, [has] this obvious, anti-commercial bent, and I come from that milieu," he says. "But something I've always vilified -- international commerce -- spawned the rise of the universities, it spawned education. And in a sense, the breeding of tolerance is the result of commerce itself. That's how we've been given the standard of living and position from which to critique it."
Fleming's quick to point out that, whether it's commerce, city living or rock-band superstardom, he's not taking sides, "just batting two poles up against one another." But isn't that exactly where so-called "folk" music has gone stale? There was a time when folk presented alternate views and histories. If The Public Domain has taken anything from its folk background, it's that impassioned digging. And a nice tune.
"Maybe this shit is just a little too thick," says Fleming. "Maybe they'll think it's pretentious, maybe you have to think a little bit. Well, good! But hopefully there's some nice melodies to help you on your way."
Daryl Fleming and The Public Domain CD release 10 p.m. Fri., Dec. 1. Club Café, 56-58 South 12th St., South Side. $7. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com