Heartache & Stone
3.5 stars (out of 5)
Minnesota’s Monroe Crossing have been actively promoting their interpretation of classic bluegrass sounds tempered with folk and pop sensibilities for more than a decade, and have released a number of fine songs and listenable albums. Heartache & Stone, their ninth album, brings to fruition their ongoing efforts and serves as a more substantial calling card than their previous releases.
While banjo players have come and gone, the group has been long centered about the twin powers of Art Blackburn (guitar and vocals) and Lisa Fuglie (fiddle and vocals). This formidable pair continues to be ably complemented by mandolinist Matt Thompson and bassist Mark Anderson. Benji Flaming remains on five-string, duplicating the lineup featured on Live from Silver Dollar City a couple of years back.
What has changed? Perhaps I’m the only one to sense it, but it seems like the band is no longer trying too hard. It is as if they have grown into themselves and accepted not only any limitations they may have — and if these exist, they are not apparent from listening — and embraced their attributes. It is as if they have become more comfortable within their skin.
The songwriting seems stronger, too. While the band has always explored unlikely sources for material — Etta James’ “At Last,” Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” and Willie Nelson/Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” — on previous discs, this time the selections seem less forced. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “4 + 20” is interpreted minimally, with Art Blackburn handling the lead singing and some delicate picking; as stated in the liner notes, the rest of the band “mostly just stays out of the way.” Without exaggeration, the song sounds brighter, livelier, and perhaps better within this interpretation than it does on Déjà Vu.
A number of Minnesotan songwriters have their material included. The standout may be Becky Buller’s contribution “Raven Tresses,” a languid, atmospheric piece sung hauntingly by Blackburn. Fuglie’s harmony adds depth to the circumstances, while Flaming’s banjo notes create sparseness within darkness.
Another notable song is the title track, a Blackburn original featuring the lyric, “The road to happiness is paved with heartache and stone.” In what could have ended ugly, a reimaging of Prince’s “Purple Rain” is delivered without mockery or flamboyance; the lyrics are entirely appropriate to the genre and the adjustments made to the melody and instrumentation are bang on. Who knew there was a bluegrass song in there?
Being from the northern Midwest, it is pleasant that the band embraces their state’s history for touchstones. In the case of “Me & Billy” a roundabout repeats Minnesota history by attempting to out-do the James Gang’s exploits, only to be brought to justice by a childhood friend.
The instrumentation and vocals are superior to much one encounters on “regional” releases. On up-tempo pieces such as “Patience” and “Mississippi Stringer,” as well as on less lively songs (the evocative “Potter’s Field,” for example) the musicians demonstrate their instrumental agility. Blackburn and Fuglie slip out of the lead vocal positions into harmony with Thompson effortlessly, creating an appealing blend. There is any number of reasons the band has remained popular within their circuit for such an extended period of time.
Monroe Crossing has long had an identifiable logo, and the band’s trademark sign is as fine a piece of bluegrass memorabilia as exists. Musically, everything has come together for the quintet on Heartache & Stone, and it stands as their most accomplished album to date.
by Donald Teplyske