Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain
Rural Rhythm Records
2 stars (out of 5)
Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain recently released their second album. Exempting a track heard on the radio, CHHR2 was my first exposure to the group, and I can honestly say it made a lasting impression. What I can’t say is that it was a positive one.
A 12-track disc, CHHR2 is comprised primarily of band-written material, the majority of which originates from banjoist Josh Miller and his songwriting partners. Produced by Mountain Heart’s Jim Van Cleve, the album is enveloped in a generic sheen that prevents any distinctiveness of the performers, including Hassler, from shining through.
I’m sure many have had the experience of over-buffing a particular paint spot on a car, and know what happens: the finish is suddenly worn away leaving a permanent blemish. That metaphor came to mind while listening to the album. It is as if the band and producer worked so hard to make the listening experience something special and perfect that they wore away at and weakened the desired effect.
I caused a bit of a furor when I recently wrote elsewhere about my initial impressions of CHHR2, and while my word choices could have been more thoughtful, my basic thesis remains consistent. Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain present- on this album- a most unimaginative and bland representation of bluegrass. According to some of the correspondence I received as a result, I’m the only person who has heard this album who hasn’t loved it, and maybe that says as much about me as it does the general bluegrass listening community.
I know we in the close-knit bluegrass community live within a small and at times incestuous world, one in which artists serve as agents, songwriters are bookers, managers are spouses, writers are publicists, and critics are few; we need to be supportive of each others efforts. But, sometimes one is forced to lay it all on the stump, and I’ll do that when the situation calls for it. Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain miss the mark this time out.
I know my words are hurtful, and for that I’m sorry. But they are also honest. I’m sure Carrie Hassler is a nice lady, a good mother, and maybe even a fine singer, and I’m certain her band is comprised of noble, upstanding men (and they do demonstrate their musical proficiencies throughout the album ) but this is the sort of bluegrass that makes me hate my favorite music. There is little memorable about CHHR2 with every song blurring into the next. Maybe on another night, in another week, my reaction wouldn’t be nearly so visceral. But I’ve had it with spending my semi-valuable time listening music that invokes nothing positive to my experience and- ultimately- my life.
Other insipid albums have obviously caused this blackness to build up in me, but CHHR2 was simply the marble that dumped the daisies. Little personality, color by numbers songwriting, unimaginative arrangements…everyone trying to sound like The Grascals, Rhonda Vincent, and Mountain Heart…all of whom are enjoyable- in moderation- but whose imitators are less flavorful and substantial than a Twinkie. One tune- “Devil’s Den”- even sounds like a demo for the next Vincent album, right down to the vocal phrasing and note-stretching.
The album kicks off with “I Can Go Back Anytime” from the pen of Jennifer Strickland. It has a spunky little rhythm, but the lyrics are trite and obvious. Basically, the sentiment is this: Even if you dump me and plainly tell me we have no future, I can hold onto the moments we had and call them up whenever I long to be with you. And really, that’s enough to keep me going. Awww, shucks- she’s in love with the boy. I’m not sure Trisha Yearwood has recorded something as predictable and pitiful. And that’s saying something.
“Country Strong” is a country song, complete with too obvious drumming and Hammond B3 organ; beyond overwrought lyrics, there is nothing bluegrass about this number. Even the unison harmonies are straight from Sugarland.
Most of the included arrangements break my Rule of Six by a couple- if you have more than six vocalists or instrumentalists on a bluegrass tune, you’re in danger of polluting the mix. Ditto my ‘Thank you’ Gauge: If there are more thank you’s listed on the booklet than there other credits or notes, the album is going to be a bit self-indulgent.
Two songs warrant attention and provide the album with redeeming moments.
“Fickle Heart,” a Josh Miller song, is the album’s only standout, up tempo track. While the song doesn’t break any new ground, it features a sharp little mandolin break from Kevin McKinnon and some tasty guitar from his brother Keith. The chorus is catchy, making it one of the few songs to remain with this listener.
“She’s A Stranger in His Mind,” a Mark Brinkman song, possesses an emotional acuity that lesser writers can only imitate. Like “Saving Grace” from Doyle Lawson’s You Gotta Dig A Little Deeper album, the song relates the anguish of the partner without Alzheimer’s without being maudlin or reaching toward obvious manipulation.
A final song fails when delving into similar territory, and gives me the heebie-jeebies every time I hear it. “I Don’t Want to Wake Up” joins my No Go list alongside “Sadie’s Got Her New Dress On,”“Caught in the Crossfire,” and “Darby’s Castle.” It finds our protagonist on life-support in the hospital, blackmailing her love with her impending death- if you love me, I’ll fight to live; if not, I don’t want to go on. Perhaps the songwriters thought this was an amazing profession of the dying person’s love; I hear it as an attempt to guilt someone into making an unwarranted declaration. It is excruciating in its emotional manipulation.
So, where does this leave us?
Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain is one of the many young bands attempting to make a go of it on the modern bluegrass circuit. That they want to appeal to an audience wider than the narrow-minded, ‘grassier than thou market is more than understandable.
However, the best of modern, under-fifty bluegrass- that dispensed by true believers like Dale Ann Bradley, James King, the Bluegrass Brothers, and the Steep Canyon Rangers- has a spirit and fervor missing from CHHR2. The band has too much talent to lack personality to the degree exemplified on this disc, and one holds hope that future projects present the band in a more agreeable light.
by Donald Teplyske