It is always a good day when a new album from The SteelDrivers is released, and that day comes February 5, 2013. My review of Hammer Down has been posted to Country Standard Time. It is a pretty darned good album, every bit as good as the two which preceded it.
Archive for the ‘Rounder Records’ Tag
Over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, I’ve posted a new edition of “Gold…In A Way,” an ongoing series where I re-examine albums that I believe deserve another listen. This time out, Bobby O & Try A Little Kindness, his 2006 Rounder album that relaunched his bluegrass pursuits. http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=916 will get you there. As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Starting about six years ago, a handful of sessions were held in a pair of Tennessee studios. Gathering were several of the finest contemporary bluegrass musicians representing the most influential groups of the day, among them Union Station, Mountain Heart, the Del McCoury Band, and Kentucky Thunder.
Alongside these powerful sidemen (a list which includes Dan Tyminski, Clay Hess, Jason Carter, Randy Kohrs, Ron Stewart, Barry Bales, and Adam Steffey) some of bluegrass music’s most influential and revered banjo players were assembled. The five-string players cut a huge swath through the premier bluegrass pickers: from Jim Mills, Dave Talbot, and Charlie Cushman, to J.D. Crowe, Joe Mullins, Kenny Ingram, and more.
All came together to bring to life a tribute to bluegrass music’s most influential banjo player, Earl Scruggs. It has been successfully argued that bluegrass music didn’t exist until Scruggs brought his distinctive three-fingered style of playing to Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. The twelve tunes included on this very excellent collection signal confirmation that while Scruggs has passed, his influence and legacy remain secure.
While much is made of the speed and drive of bluegrass, as important is the ability to play within an established ensemble, to support other musicians as a tune is performed. It is this precision, this spark of creative camaraderie that is most apparent throughout this album.
Within a set featuring some of the greatest bluegrassers ever assembled playing the songs on which the music was built- including “Rueben,” “Earl’s Breakdown,” “Ground Speed,” and “Pike Country Breakdown”- there is no end to the highlights. Ron Block’s treatment of “Foggy Mountain Special” is spritely and Ron Stewart’s fiddle playing works beautifully within the arrangement. Larry Perkins brings the ‘down home’ to “Sally Goodin” and J.D. Crowe- himself a legend in bluegrass circles- shows no signs of slowing down while leading “Nashville Skyline Rag.”
Along with Tom Adams’ insightful notes and Tom Rozum’s beautiful cover art, the music contained within Foggy Mountain Special: A Bluegrass Tribute to Earl Scruggs is superior by any measure.
There has seemingly been no end to the ‘tribute’ offerings to be produced in this the Year of Bill Monroe. While some of the recordings have been highly original- Laurie Lewis’s set Skippin’ & Flyin’ and Niall Toner’s ”William Smith Monroe,” as two examples- others have been less so, although still enjoyable.
Similar to Rebel Records’ companion albums With Body and Soul (secular) and Let the Light Shine Down (gospel), this two-disc Rounder set pulls 27-Monroe songs from the vaults. Performed by a variety of artists- everyone from the Bluegrass Album Band to Claire Lynch, Vern Williams, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band- the overall quality of the selections is high. Five tracks from the Bluegrass Album Band and three tracks from both the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Michael Cleveland may seem like overkill, but that would be nitpicking, especially considering the musicianship present on these cuts. While it times out at just over 80-minutes, one has a hard time cutting any of the tracks which would have allowed it to be a single-disc issue. Still, I bought my copy of $14.99 so I can hardly complain from an economic point of view.
While some folks may have all of these catalogue tracks in their collections, the package is still of interest for significant reasons, not the least of which is that it provides a darn enjoyable listen. The lengthy essay from Bill Nowlin is very readable and contains enough information to serve as a reminder of how much one still doesn’t fully understand about Monroe’s music and life. A lively new take of “Close By” from vocal darlings Dailey & Vincent has proven popular on bluegrass radio.
A fine collection that would be appreciated by almost all bluegrass fans.
Have you ever heard a less than impressive album from bluegrass superstars Blue Highway? Me neither.
During the course of their 17 years as a heavy-hitting bluegrass outfit, the quintet- Tim Stafford, Wayne Taylor, Jason Burleson, Shawn Lane, and 12-time IBMA Dobro player of the year Rob Ickes- has maintained an almost perfectly stable line-up while delivering consistently impressive recordings.
Featuring a trifecta of accomplished lead vocalists- Stafford, Taylor, and Lane- possessing distinctive but complementary sounds is one of several elements that distinguish Blue Highway from many contemporaries. Their performances mesh into the richest, most vibrantly coloured bluegrass presentation. Listening to Blue Highway- both live and on recordings- evokes the same type of quiet contemplation one experiences in places like Florence’s Uffizi Gallery; no matter which direction you turn, you know you are experiencing something timeless and meaningful.
Not for the first time in their career, Blue Highway has elected with Sounds of Home to trust themselves in selecting only band-written material; each song is at minimum a co-write with folks like Barry Bales, Steve Gulley, and Jon Weisberger. And although the band members do not write with each other here, there is nothing apparent that suggests disunity. As Weisberger intimates in his liner notes, Blue Highway is truly a band of equals.
When I was listening to the album one of the many thoughts that went through my mind was that Sounds of Home quite simply sounded like Blue Highway always sounds: note-perfect, harmony rich, classy and driving bluegrass. One isn’t surprised by such a thought; rather I’m comforted by the knowledge that one can continue to take some things for granted. “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down” is a prototypical bluegrass-radio song while “Heather and Billy” is a nice tribute to foster and adoptive parents. The title track is just a spectacular lonesome song written and sung by Lane.
As one might anticipate, the band doesn’t play things entirely safe, branching off from the bluegrass trunk in various places. “My Heart Was Made to Love You” has strange quality to it that brings to mind a lonesome Texas Playboys meets “Say You, Say Me” amalgam that sounds much better than it reads; Ickes pulls out the lap steel for this one. While there is plenty o’ banjo, so prominently is the Dobro featured on Burleson’s “Roaring Creek” that I mistook it for an Ickes composition. Lane’s fiddling adds another dimension to the song, providing additional evidence of the group’s flexibility and intuition.
For me, the highlight of the album is “Only Seventeen” (yet another) excellent song about working (and dying) “down in the place of endless light.” Taylor balances predictable subject matter with tension honed from acute word choices: from initial listen, you anticipate the youthful miner’s death but the description of the cave-in uses artful language (“Timbers they cracked as the top came in, you heard the cries and the prayers of some mighty men, Said ‘God have mercy on our poor souls, must we all perish for this seam of coal.’”) that is immensely impressive. The band backs off momentarily for the final verse before coming together to deliver a devastating coda.
Another wonderful album from one of the world’s top- and still freshest- bluegrass bands.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
In today’s Red Deer Advocate Roots Music column, I review the latest from AKUS. The review is posted below. Personally, I would like to hear more bluegrass from the band- my kind of bluegrass- but am wise enough to know that that isn’t likely to happen; it is better to appreciate what the band does than lament what the band doesn’t perform.
While Krauss’s own work with Robert Plant briefly threatened to eclipse Union Station’s substantial glow, all who have some understanding of the band and its workings were confident that they would return as strong as ever, and they have.
Looking forward to their early July concert in Edmonton…although I wouldn’t mind better seats! Wanna trade?
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Alison Krauss & Union Station Paper Airplane Rounder
It has been six years since we’ve heard new music from this top-drawing bluegrass band and while such a stretch might prove commercial suicide for some, the hiatus has allowed the band members to take care of themselves and rejuvenate while exploring side projects.
The quintet returns with an impressive collection of 11 songs, most of which will sound familiar to those who appreciate their uplifting sound.
Krauss and her Union Station mates- and AKUS is truly a band, not a backing unit for a featured performer- further refine the acoustiblue parameters that they have established and explored over the past fifteen years since So Long, So Wrong. The acoustic instrumentation is, as expected, exemplary in its tone and execution and while some of the songs- it could be argued- have a similar calm and sedate sound, there are enough lively moments to maintain momentum.
“My Love Follows You Where You Go” and “Lay My Burden Down” are the most dynamic pieces on which Krauss sings lead; the band pushes things a little, allowing Krauss to sing in a fuller voice than she does elsewhere. Krauss’s signature is the plaintive, yearnsome qualities she conveys vocally in romantic and decidedly anti-romantic settings and these are always appreciated.
The album’s cornerstone song may be an evocative rendering of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” on which Krauss’s breathlessly communicates the love that grows with absence.
While much of the music of Paper Airplane is only distantly related to traditional bluegrass, the album does have its share of unrestrained moments. “Dust Bowl Children” is one of three songs to feature the aggressive tenor of Dan Tyminski in the lead position, and each of these songs is better than the one that came before.
Beyond their instrumental and vocal harmony mastery, what is remarkable about Union Station is that they can take an album’s worth of songs from outside writers- only bassist Barry Bales shares a co-writing credit on the album- and make them completely their own. You hear and feel their anguish, their questioning, and their hopes in every note.
Singularly, the songs are arrestingly enjoyable. Collectively, the cohesive flow of Paper Airplane amounts to one majestic performance.
My long-delayed review of Fired Up has been posted at the Lonesome Road Review. The review is long-delayed simply because I know how to procrastinate. This link will get you there: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2011/05/08/fired-up-by-michael-cleveland-flamekeeper/
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
My review of Sierra Hull’s second album of bluegrass for the Rounder label has been posted at http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2011/04/30/daybreak-by-sierra-hull/. I’ve been listening to the album for seven or eight weeks and it has stood up to innumerable listens in various situations. It is a gooder. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee- feel free to leave a comment if you have an opinion on something I’ve written. Donald
http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2011/04/10/rare-bird-alert-by-steve-martin-and-the-steep-canyon-rangers/ will get you to my review of the album Rare Bird Alert from Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. As I type, the top five bluegrass albums on the Billboard chart are by Styx’s guitarist, an aggressive almost-bluegrass jam band, three Canadians who have never claimed to be bluegrass singers or instrumentalists, a country singer’s mostly acoustic project from last year, and Steve Martin’s bluegrass experiment Version 2.5.
I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not, but I know this: of those five albums, the most representative of the current state of bluegrass is the astoundingly bright Rare Bird Alert from Steve Martin. I like it more than The Crow, and I thought that was a pretty decent album.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee- Donald
Only until Monday you can download the title track from AKUS’s upcoming album Paper Airplane. http://alisonkrauss.com/ will get you there and all it’ll cost is an email address.
I’m not exactly an industry insider, so I’ll have to leave it to others to share details about the song- I can’t even find out who wrote the darn thing- but it appears to feature the full complement of Union Station. I particularly like the way Jerry Douglas is featured on this track. Alison always sounds great, and this song- which I’m listening to for the fourth time as I type- is no exception.