“Life in a Song” by New Found Road

New Found Road
Life in a Song
Rounder Records
3 Stars (out of 5)

Life in a Song is the Rounder debut and fourth release from New Found Road – a southwestern Ohio quartet that was originally an exclusively sacred music ensemble. The secular shift serves the band well on this crisp collection of contemporary bluegrass.

New Found Road more than capably covers the bluegrass bases: from the exhilarating kickoff “Cold Blue Day” to the soul stirring gospel a cappella “When I Get Home.” “No Clue” is a driving original instrumental. Its title certainly has nothing to do with the musical prowess of Rob Baker (mandolin), Randy Barnes (bass), Tim Shelton (guitar), and Jr. Williams (banjo).

The surprises start with “Douglas Graves” – a killin’ song with a twist – and proceed to grassed-up versions of the Freddy Fender hit “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone.” The stunner is the closing cover of David Paich’s “Houston (I’m Coming to See You).”

A couple of country crossovers come off a tad too sentimental alongside Baker’s title track and Shelton’s “I Miss You.” The upshot is simply that songwriting is yet another weapon with potential in the band’s arsenal. The conclusion is Life in a Song should yield New Found Road a new found following.

by Tim Walsh

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“State of Grace” by The Holmes Brothers

The Holmes Brothers
State of Grace
Alligator Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

The Holmes Brothers are the band you dream of discovering after stumbling into a dive bar or walking past a storefront church on the seedy side of town.

Their muscular grooves, gut-felt singing and intuitive, raw trio instrumentals would, and do, fit perfectly in either setting.

Sherman Holmes (bass), Wendell Holmes (guitar, piano) and Popsy Dixon (drums) trade off lead vocals from track to track and combine for seamlessly woven harmony on a 14-track mix of originals and rock, country, bluegrass and gospel covers.

There are delectable moments to be savored throughout State of Grace, and like a good book, plenty of moments that point you to various other points of interest:

- CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” as a shuffling Cajun fiddle tune.

- adapting Van Morrison’s falsetto vocal on “Warm Love” to a guitar hook for “Smiling Face Hiding a Weeping Heart.”

- a rock ‘n’ roll piano romp on Bill Monroe’s “Those Memories of You” with Joan Osborne on lead vocal.

- two of Lyle Lovett’s best songs: “If I Had a Boat” and “God Will.”

- harmonies with a rejuvenated Levon Helm (The Band) on “I’ve Just Seen the Rock of Ages.”

- and, most satisfying for trainspotters, using George Harrison’s guitar figure from Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You” as an intro for Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?,” which was made popular by Elvis Costello. (None of which has anything to do with Peter O’Toole.)

Which is not to say State of Grace is a formless jam session with obligatory guests and reheated cliches. It’s one of the finest-crafted, most distinctive albums of the year so far.

And if you don’t believe me, just listen to the six-minute take on Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” transformed here from 70s arena rock to a mournful, expansive, cathartic gospel trio over a sadly shimmering piano fit to be played in a majestic cathedral.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Generation Nation” by Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings

Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings

Generation Nation

Compass Records

4.5 Stars (out of 5)

 

Last fall while flipping through channels, I came upon a glorious sounding string ensemble that made me drop everything and watch with rapt attention. It turns out this amazing sound came from Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings, and I’d caught the tail end of the program. I was hooked. Anger’s Republic of Strings is made up of artists with ages ranging from 14 to 52, with as wide a variety of influences between them.

The ever-evolving group’s latest album, Generation Nation, has something for pretty much everyone, or at least everyone with an open mind and a need to groove. From the entrancing “When You Go (Djulaikta Waltz),” by guitarist Scott Nygaard, that opens the album, to the smooth, meandering improvisation based on a tune by Swedish/English group Swap, “The Seagull (Fiskmas) / The Bad Day,” to the saucy “Chain of Fools,” sung lustily by Chris Webster, this album is a great listen.

Rushad Eggleston’s “In the Basement,” sung delicately by fellow Crooked Still member Aoife O’Donovan, is a nice representation of the melding of styles presented in the album. Aoife’s lovely, pure voice over rollicking cello presents a tune that sounds Celtic, American, exotic, and new all at once.

This album is great; I would recommend it for fans of Nickel Creek, Chris Thile, The Duhks, and Crooked Still, as well as those curious about the current musical direction of young string players.

The album features: Darol Anger, Scott Nygaard, Rushad Eggleston, Brittany Haas. Guests include: Aoife O’Donovan, Terry and Josh Pinkham, Marsha Genensky, and Chris Webster.

by Katy Leonard

“Fork in the Road” by The Infamous Stringdusters

The Infamous Stringdusters
Fork in the Road
Sugar Hill Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Not often does a band arrive on the bluegrass and acoustic music scene with enough polish and versatility to be regarded among the best. But The Infamous Stringdusters have done exactly that.

Their showcase at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass last fall was eagerly anticipated and highly satisfying. So is their 12-song, 50-minute debut on Sugar Hill Records.

Rather than a backing band for a couple of aces, the Stringdusters’ arrangements are multi-textured and rich even during solo breaks. The jazz ensemble vibe comes through strongest on the three instrumentals, each written by a band member: “40 West” by mandolinist Jesse Cobb, “Moon Man” by banjoist Chris Pandolfi and “No Resolution” by dobroist Andy Hall.

Hall also wrote two other hard-driving vocal tracks: “My Destination” and “No More to Leave You Behind,” a brilliant track that, followed up by “Fork in the Road” from songwriters Chris Jones and John Pennell’s, gets things off to an auspicious start. Hall also co-wrote the brooding ballad “Tragic Life” with fiddler Jeremy Garrett.

Along with Hall and Garrett, bassist Travis Book forms a trio of singers equally apt at lead and harmony, giving the band a vocal range that matches its instrumental reach.

All three have the rare talent to make a song sweet but not syrupy; Hall’s vocals on “Letter from Prison,” Garrett’s on “Starry Night” and Book’s on “Poor Boy’s Delight” and the John Mayer cover “3×5″ are simply moving.

Then there’s Chris Eldridge, whose powerful rhythm guitar and tasteful fills and lead lines knit everything together.

Tim Stafford leaves his mark as co-producer with the band. Fitting, since the whole package does indeed invite comparisons to Stafford’s band Blue Highway, the most lasting and distinct bluegrass band to debut last decade. It looks like the Infamous Stringdusters might fill that role in this one.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“The Skylighters” by The Skylighters

The Skylighters
The Skylighters
Red Beet Records
4 Stars (out of 5)

The Skylighters might not be a familiar name, but some familiar names comprise the quintet: bluegrass stalwarts Mike Auldridge and Jimmy Gaudreau and three members of Nashville’s Last Train Home: Eric Brace, Jim Gray, and Martin Lynds. Their self-titled studio release captures the magic of their infrequent on-stage get-togethers.

Oddly enough, the album’s lone original – Brace’s “See What Love Can Do” – sets the tone, with Brace backed by Auldridge’s (resophonic guitar) and Gaudreau’s (mandolin) bluegrass breaks while bassist Gray and percussionist Lynds keep time. From there, it’s as if The Skylighters is an in-house all-request hour; as the collective culls bluegrass, country, folk, gospel, honky-tonk, and swing gems into a cohesive collection of terrific music.

Selections span four Louvin Brothers classics, Eric Anderson’s “Close the Door Lightly,” Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart’s “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and Avril Gearheart and Ralph Stanley’s “Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures.” The mix also affords less common configurations. Auldridge’s pedal steel transforms Norman Blake’s “Last Train from Poor Valley” and Jim Croce’s “Maybe Tomorrow” into classic country weepers. Gaudreau sings lead on five tracks and plays electric guitar on “Dear One.”

The driving force behind this music is the music itself. Fancy licks are few; these tremendously talented musicians simply are playing songs they love with passion and sincerity. Consequently, the Skylighters have whipped up a winner!

by Tim Walsh