“Things That Fly” by The Infamous Stringdusters

The Infamous Stringdusters
Things That Fly
Sugar Hill Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Both in politics and music, the word progressive can be a controversial one, fraught with the baggage of whoever uses it. One might me tempted to call Things That Fly a progressive step for a band whose previous efforts, Fork in the Road (2007) and The Infamous Stringdusters (2008), were noticeably closer to what most people would consider to be bluegrass, albeit a rather contemporary variety.

You could call Things That Fly a progressive step for the band, but isn’t necessarily a step toward or away from anything, it’s just different. In fact, it still relies on the same backbone as its two fine predecessors: well-chosen or -written songs; engaging vocals from Dobroist Andy Hall, fiddler Jeremy Garrett and bassist Travis Book; and a sinewy instrumental sound propelled by Hall, banjoist Chris Pandolfi, mandolinist Jesse Cobb and guitarist Andy Falco, who adds occasional organ and keyboards to this effort.

The band’s seventh member on this recording is co-producer Gary Paczosa, who helps craft a warm, yet open, sound throughout that is worthy of great rock album, sometimes throwing in a vocal effect where on a more “grassy” effort harmonies alone would have had to do the emphatic job.

The songs here are all great, with the Stringdusters taking the rock thing a little further by crafting soundscapes that start as simple, clean acoustic riffs rather than as crunchy electric guitar tones, but two deserve special mention: a sprightly version of Jody Stecher’s “17 Cents” with country star Dierks Bentley guesting and a stunning cover of U2’s “In God’s Country” which evokes the feeling of driving through a desert all day with your windows down.

This one is a summer soundtrack type of disc and one of the best releases of 2010 so far, no matter what direction this band takes in future outings.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Sigh No More” by Mumford & Sons

Mumford & Sons
Sigh No More
Glassnote Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

West London may not be the first place you’d look for rootsy folk-rockers, but that’s where Mumford & Sons hail from. Making three EPs since their 2007 inception, their first full length effort falls somewhere between The Waterboys and Fleet Foxes, without the wild abandon of the former but with a visceral urgency lacking in the latter.

Some of the credit for that urgency has to go to producer Markus Dravs who fosters a big sound that envelops Marcus Mumford’s lead vocals with just enough echo underpinned by a booming kick drum. A tintinabulating banjo sometimes cuts through that mix, pulling the acoustic guitars along with an energy that almost approaches the bluegrass level.

Mumford’s vocals are doleful, but not morbid, even though some of the lyrical content here is quite heavy. Indeed, he can almost sound hopeful at times, especially on the title track when his lead emerges from the stacked harmonies that give this album an extra dose of its richness.

“The Cave” is another particularly good example of what M&S are aiming for, as is “Little Lion Man,” which has a memorable but radio unfriendly chorus. Take a chance on one or both of those on iTunes before you buy the whole album, which perhaps relies overmuch on the same formula, but promises more good music down the road.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Crazy Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”

Crazy Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
New West Records
4 stars (out of 5)

In spite—or perhaps because—of its similarities to the 1983 classic Tender Mercies, Crazy Heart is a really good film. Jeff Bridges as washed up country singer Bad Blake deserved the Best Actor Oscar that he won, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell all turn in fine supporting efforts in a tale of redemption through love and music.

The music is essential to the film, and director Scott Cooper, with the help of T Bone Burnett and fine performances from his actors, nails it. The approach is much different than the one Burnett used in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was essentially a musical comedy. Crazy Heart is a film about music as a profession and craft, and its essential to show the characters doing it in a credible way.

It’s also more important than in other films to pick background songs that fit the mood of the piece. Buck Owens’ “Hello Trouble” evokes the world of country music that the fictional Blake must have risen from, as does “My Baby’s Gone” by the Louvin Brothers, whose beatific voices stand in for the beauty that has been lost in Blake’s life.

Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” is a perfect song, symbolic of the ideal that Blake has reached for in the past and might manage again, and Lightning Hopkins’”Once a Gambler” represents both Blake’s fortunes and the blues edge that influences his sound. Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way?” is used to great effect in the film when Blake re-encounters his protege amid the extravagant trappings of a modern country tour.

The only song that doesn’t belong here is Sam Phillips’ “Reflecting Light;” it just doesn’t fit the mood of the overall piece, but Phillips is Burnett’s wife, so there you go.

Bridges sings on six of the 16 tracks on this 49-minute CD, and every one is a gem, the actor’s voice proving to be as engaging as his personality. “Hold On You” opens the album with a brooding, laconic energy that you’d expect to hear from Van Zandt, “Somebody Else” and “I Don’t Know”  have the feel of rockin’ Waylon tunes, and “Brand New Angel” sounds like barroom Dylan.

“Fallin’ and Flyin’”—Blake’s fictional megahit— gets two versions, one studio take with Bridges and a live duet with Colin Farrell that sounds exactly like a country song at a big outdoor music shed should sound, wide echo and all. Farrell also contributes “Gone, Gone, Gone,” a credible nod to an updated version of Cash’s Sun sound.

Ryan Bingham contributes his own version of “I Don’t Know” in a rough-worn voice that is used to even greater effect on “The Weary Kind,” which won the Oscar for best original song. Written by Bingham and Burnett, in the film it is the creative act with which Blake redeems himself in his own eyes and, for once, a song of this type is as great as the plot calls for. It will haunt you long after hearing this fine soundtrack or watching the equally fine film.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“The Famous Lefty Flynn’s” by The Grascals

The Grascals
The Famous Lefty Flynn’s
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

Having blasted onto the bluegrass music scene in 2005—winning the International Bluegrass Music Association’s emerging artist award that year and following up with two straight entertainer of the year nods—The Grascals have filled a niche that was once occupied by The Osborne Brothers as a country-leaning bluegrass band with superb material, impeccable lead and harmony vocals and a desire to always have fun on stage and in the studio.

The Grascals (2005), Long List of Heartaches (2006) and Keep On Walkin’ (2008) exuded these qualities, as does their fourth Rounder Records release, The Famous Lefty Flynn’s.

That the band is still in fine running order after the additions of the award-winning Kristin Scott Benson on banjo and youngster Jeremy Abshire on fiddle is plainly evident on the opening cut, an animated cover of The Monkees’ 1966 number-one hit “Last Train to Clarksville.”

Lest one think that the group has gone pop, the second track is a blazing version of the Pete Goble/Osborne Brothers track “Son of a Sawmill Man,” complete with Terry Eldredge on lead vocals, a twangy steel guitar and monster breaks from Abshire and mandolinist Danny Roberts.

Eldredge, the group’s finest singer—which is saying something with guitarist Jamie Johnson and bassist Terry Smith in the mix—is in his element with “Everytime,” a modern day ramblin’ song from Harley Allen and Toby Keith caddy Scotty Emerick, the brooding, bluesy “Out Comes the Sun,” the cinematic title track (Johnny Depp should play the lead) and Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues,” one of the best songs ever written about depression.

Johnson leads on the familiar “Up This Hill and Down” and the soaring original “My Baby’s Waiting on the Other Side.” He also turns in stellar heartfelt performances on the disc’s two gospel tracks “Satan and Grandma” and “Give Me Jesus.”

“Blue Rock Slide” is a bouncy, four-minute original instrumental workout for the group’s pickers to prove it’s not just all about the vocals on this 12-track, 35-minute effort.

But the album’s capper is “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” with Hank Williams Jr. guesting on the track that his father co-wrote with Bill Monroe. With Eldredge’s moonshine tenor scraping against Williams’ strong lead, it could be the best ever cover version of this bluesy bluegrass classic.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Genuine Negro Jig” by Carolina Chocolate Drops

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Genuine Negro Jig
Nonesuch Records
2.5 stars (out of 5)

As one who is quite keen on the contributions by black artists to American roots music outside the fields of jazz and blues, I was excited to hear of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a three-piece modern recreation of an old-time black fiddle and banjo band under the tutelage of Joe Thompson.

Not having heard their previous efforts, I’m sad to say that their latest is a bit of a disappointment, not because of a lack of skill, but because of a lack of musical focus.

Rhiannon Giddens (fiddle, banjo), who turns in a fine a cappella version of the old English ballad “Reynadine,” Justin Robinson (fiddle) and Dom Flemons (guitar, jug, percussion and banjo) are quite capable musicians who acquit themselves well on old-time material like “Peace Behind the Bridge,” a greasy fiddle and banjo tune with bones percussion and “Trouble in Your Mind,” a rousing dance vocal tune.

Likewise “Cindy Gal,” “Sandy Boys” and the sly “Cornbread and Butterbeans” are fine takes on traditional tunes, and the original “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” fits right in the old-time groove.

That accounts for seven of the 12 tracks on this 39-minute disc. The remaining five tracks, which attempt to expand the group’s purview, are interspersed throughout the album and make it a less-pleasurable listen.

Blu Cantrell’s obnoxious 2002 R&B hit “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” complete with gypsified fiddle, lacks the humorous touch necessary to put such a ludicrous cover across. Giddens’ vocal on the smoky “Why Don’t You Do Right?” falls flat, as does the repetitive, grating fiddle figure on “Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig).”

The original “Kissin’ and Cussin'” and a cover of Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose” attempt to be brooding caustic rock songs, but both simply drag along.

Better that this talented group stick to their bread and butter, or somehow try to translate the fun spirit of their old-time tunes to broader material.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Concert” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Concert
Rounder Records
3 stars (out of 5)

More than just about any label since Stiff in the late ’70s, Rounder Records has accompanied me on my life-long musical journey. With a diverse roster of artists represented at all points along four decades, quality is a hallmark of the Massachusetts-based label. So it is with regret that I provide a lukewarm recommendation for this live collection of Americana roots music.

The full spectrum of Rounder’s history is overlooked—likely by logistic necessity—in favour of the slimmest of present slivers.

Under-represented is the continuing commitment Rounder has made to bluegrass (The Grascals, James King, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Hazel Dickens…), blues (realizing he is no longer with Rounder, wouldn’t it have been cool to have had George Thorogood tearin’ the place apart? Or maybe James Hunter, even?) and singer-songwriters (Carrie Newcomer’s absence is notable, as is that of Cheryl Wheeler, Bruce Cockburn, Kathleen Edwards, and the multitude of others who have their albums released by Rounder).

Also, as anyone who has watched the PBS presentation of this event knows, select featured cuts weren’t recorded at the gala evening last October at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House. One wonders the benefit of including Crossroads audio and Madeleine Peyroux numbers from a Los Angeles concert.

However, one should review an album for what it is, not what it isn’t. What Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Concert is, is pretty good.

By limiting each act to two selections, the label has allowed the gala celebration to be captured on a single disc. From swinging Louisiana sounds represented by Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas, to instrumental exploration from Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas, and the lively spectacle of banjo man Steve Martin fronting the Steep Canyon Rangers, much musical ground is covered.

Actress and singer Minnie Driver opens the set with the appealing “Cold Dark River,” and soulful Irma Thomas digs deep with “River is Waiting” and “Don’t Mess with My Man”  representing her long Rounder tenure.

Rounder’s First Lady Alison Krauss appears both with Union Station and Robert Plant; a performance of “Rich Woman” is the aforementioned Crossroads piece. One of the most satisfying performances emanates from the pairing of Abigail Washburn with Fleck on “Keys to the Kingdom.”

Mary Chapin Carpenter appears late in the disc performing a pair of numbers including an intense rendition of “Why Shouldn’t We.”

The sound is everything one expects from a modern live recording, with a balanced mix that highlights the featured soloists. There are no surprises amongst the 18 performances, and the Grand Finale Gospel Medley fails to build upon the limited momentum.

Perfect for an evening of public television, this concert recording—while a fine commemorative piece—seems excessively safe. At its best, the songs of AKUS, Nathan Williams, MCC, and Driver pull listeners into a shared, celebratory experience. At its worst, it is slightly bland and that is too bad; Rounder has been anything but bland!

Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Concert cruises along the middle too solidly for one who finds interesting stuff more often in the ditches.

by Donald Teplyske