By Donald Teplyske
Old Crow Medicine Show, Mumford and Sons, and Chris Thile can be held to account for unleashing upon the world countless imitators and musicians influenced by their approach to new (but not always that new, really) acoustic folk- and bluegrass-inspired music.
Much of it is trite. Some of it is inspired. Little, in my experience, encourages repeated listening: the Pine Hearts make music that does.
Hailing from the string-band, bluegrass hotbed of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, the Pine Hearts are a trio well-versed in music making. Each member has extensive experience playing roots-influenced and bluegrass music, and their wide-ranging backgrounds have shaped a sound that is notable in its fresh application of timeless approaches.
As always, it starts with musicianship, and Joe Capoccia (guitar), Lob Strilla (banjo) and Derek McSwain (mandolin) come together to create a bass-less trio that is solid. Grounded in rock and traditional folk, bluegrass, and old-time music, the Pine Hearts communicate confidence through their music. There is nothing tentative in their approach.
The album’s only non-original is a take of “Big Sciota,” and their interpretation quickly became a favorite of this listener. Listening to their collaborative efforts on “Somewhere Between”—the dexterity of the flatpicking, the cohesive way it blends with the frailing on the banjo, and the manner with which the mandolin’s rhythm ties them together—provides significant evidence of the trio’s musical maturity.
The Pine Hearts hold nothing back as they assemble a selection of original songs that are distinctive, memorable, and downright appealing. The album’s centerpiece is “Heartache or the Whiskey,” a song that stands with the finest heard this past month: “Which came first, the heartache or the whiskey? Which is worse, being wrong or being alone?” Eternal questions asked nightly, I’m sure.
“Last Man Standing” is a powerful song, one of the closest resembling the widespread understanding of bluegrass, sonically speaking. The album’s opening track “Don’t Let The Stars Bring You Down” has a sing-along quality similar to “Wagon Wheel.” Throughout the album, the vocals are relaxed and unfettered by worry of conventions.
If the Pine Hearts possess weakness, it could be found here. Me? I appreciate their seemingly unschooled and natural approach to singing.
Distant Lights isn’t complicated. It is just good.