By Donald Teplyske
Front Country and its principals never attempted to fit into a tidy box neatly labeled ‘bluegrass.’ They flirted with it—We Made It Home was produced by Laurie Lewis, the group showcased in Raleigh a couple of IBMA conferences ago, and lead singer Melody Walker picked up a Momentum Award last fall—but to these ears their music was usually out among the stakes and guy ropes of the big tent. Heck, even broader, more tolerant terms—alt.country, Americana, and folk-pop—fell short of capturing the Front Country/Melody Walker/Jacob Groopman experience.
Over the course of a handful of albums and EPs, Walker, Groopman, and Front Country—individually and collectively—have established a genre-blurring sound founded upon stunning acoustic instrumentation, absolutely stellar lead singing from Walker, challenging original writing, as well as compelling and inventive covers, incorporating Blondie, Paul Simon, Kate Wolf, Bruce Hornsby, Utah Phillips, and others in their catholic interpretation of modern music.
Now declaring themselves ‘roots pop,’ Front Country have left most connections to bluegrass behind. Jordan Klein and his 5-string have departed, and the arrangements and even the production have a sheen to them. Hinted at on last year’s Mixtape EP, Front Country, having taken these measures, is now as much an acoustic rock group as they are a roots-based collective. These are not criticisms, just notable and significant adjustments that take the group back to an approach not dissimilar to that of Walker’s 2011 release, Gold Rush Goddess.
Darrell Scott, and Physical Graffiti as it does the Carter Family.Other Love Songs is a thoroughly impressive album. Incorporating elements from the likes of Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks (listen to the guitar work and melody of “Lonesome Town”) is never a bad idea, and Front Country can borrow this liberally because they don’t leave things in such a state—they stretch these obvious allusions with their own creativity and natural charms. In the land of Front Country, “Storms Are On the Ocean” becomes a sultry, blues pledge that shares as much with Janis Joplin,
Violinist Leif Karlstrom plays off Adam Roszkiewicz’s mandolin throughout “O Heartbreaker,” creating an acoustic tension as momentous as a Pete Townshend melody. Bassist Jeremy Darrow shares the spotlight with Walker on her “I Don’t Wanna Die Angry,” perhaps the most formidable of the eight songs she wrote for the project. “T.H.A.T.S” is an instrumental written by Roszkiewicz that moves closer to the modern interpretation of progressive bluegrass than anything else on the album, while another tune from Roszkiewicz, “Sometimes It Does,” possesses a distinctive, traditional tone.
Before closing with the faithful promise of “Keep Travelin'” Front Country elect to address current political and social malfeasance with an astute rendering of David Olney’s “Millionaire,” sung by Groopman.
Start to finish, Front Country’s sophomore album Other Love Songs challenges and soothes. Just don’t come to it expecting another Sake of the Sound: as eclectic as their debut was, long ago, far away that. Front Country continues to evolve while retaining their personable approach to music made of wire and wood. And that is just fine.