Some Strange Country
4 stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
Sometimes pegged as part of the roots, alt-bluegrass movement, Crooked Still’s Some Strange Country is a fusion of roots, bluegrass and new age music, Enya meets Alison Krauss. No doubt they have faithful followers out there – it’s not likely they could keep up the touring schedule they have without fans – but for the uninitiated (which may be most bluegrass folks) this is hearing music, not listening music. The key to understanding their music is to remember what they want to do, not what we expect to hear.
You know what I mean by “hearing” music: I hear “Moon River” when I’m on an elevator, but I listen to Dailey & Vincent. That doesn’t mean this CD isn’t entertaining, but for me, from a bluegrass perspective, it’s a vacuum filler. Listening to the CD while I write the review I lost track of what I was listening to. They do play bluegrass events once in a while, scheduled at Gray Fox for one. I have a hard time imagining a very warm response at someplace like Bean Blossom, though.
Singer Aoife O’Donovan’s voice is ethereal, much like Alison singing “When You Say Nothing At All” or Enya singing “China Roses.” You have to strain to hear the lyrics and the messages aren’t exactly “Cabin On The Hill.” The lyrics are included in the insert but the font size is, of course, tiny and they chose a beautiful but hard to read script typeface printed against an olive background. It’s almost like a dare to see if you can read more than one at a time without a headache. And these are long songs. I’m surprised “Barabara Allen” isn’t included somewhere.
They don’t seem to target bluegrass as a primary market, but they do have a couple of links on the CD. Ricky Skaggs sings harmony on “The Golden Vanity,” one of several traditional songs on the CD. Without the liner credits it would be quite a catch to know it’s Skaggs, though. Tim O’Brien sings on “I’m Troubled” (I do like their version better than the Garcia/Grisman version) and “Calvary,” a gospel number (I had to read the lyrics to figure that out) with a weird banjo intro.
They are good instrumentalists. The banjoist (Gregory Liszt) spends most of his time providing fills, but rapid, syncopated, repetitious fills without any misses takes skill. Tristan Clarridge plays some excellent cello, Brittany Haas plays five-string fiddle and Corey DiMario is their bass player. O’Donovan adds some guitar, organ and piano. Additional contributors include Sarah Jarosz and Annalisa Tornfelt.
This is pretty strange country if you look at it from a bluegrass perspective. When you look over their discography it’s clear they’ve always flirted with bluegrass (“Darling Corey,” “Rank Stranger,” “Poor Ellen Smith”) but that isn’t their emphasis. If you view this from the perspective of what they want to accomplsh with their music, they’re doing a fine job.