The Earl Brothers
www.EarlBrothers.com and www.CDBaby.com
While overhauled in personnel, Robert Earl Davis’s band retains its unique sound. Deliberately under-annunciated, hard scrabble vocals complement tight instrumentation that is dark, rough, and never fancy- the complete antithesis of the prevalent slick, high-browed bluegrass that is mostly ignored in this space.
Original in sound, attitude, and material, the Earl Brothers’ third album finds the four-piece moving forward while retaining all the elements- troubles, whiskey, women, and death- fans have come to appreciate. The Earl Brothers’ approach to bluegrass is so fresh and natural and their sound so identifiable, listeners are likely to either love or hate this California-based band.
The album starts off bad (“Headed out west, with nothing to lose, Walking those streets an’ wore out my shoes; pain an’ sorrow, won’t go away, I’ll be a loner till my dying day”) and just gets worse. That’s from the lead track “Train of Sorrow.”
A more sorry collection of characters haven’t been heard from in bluegrass since the last Earl Brothers’ disc. It’s beautiful really.
Robert Earl Davis is a cleaner singer than the departed John McKelvy, and he does all the heavy lifting on this disc. As much as McKelvy’s vocal contributions- both lead and harmony- to the previous Troubles to Blame and Whiskey, Women, & Death albums were enjoyed and important, the band has carried on in fine form.
Davis handles all but one of the lead vocals this time out, with mandolinist Larry Hughes taking over on “Going Walking.” Davis is as distinctive a vocalist in his own right as Del McCoury, James King, or Larry Sparks- when he is singing, you know who it is. The fact is not everyone likes the way he chooses to sing or the music he creates, and that’s fair. After three albums, one is either an Earlite or one isn’t.
A Hughes instrumental “Crossing Richmond” gives the band a chance to show their ability to create bright, Monroeified bluegrass that is dynamic, crisp, and positively peppy.
They follow this up this winning tune with “Troubles to Blame,” one of their stronger numbers; this song has it all- its subject matter is lonesome and pitiful, the instruments work together to create a tapestry of bluegrass sounds where each individual note can be heard from the four instruments, and the subtle harmony on the chorus vocal doesn’t over-power the mood of the song with false cheer.
Davis has a tendency to create songs that seem familiar- for example, “Heartbreak Game” and “Moonshine”- with lyrics that surprise while simultaneously being innately appropriate to the song and situation being described. He is a true innovator on the bluegrass circuit.
For me, Moonshine is among the most notable bluegrass albums of the year, and is highly recommended for bluegrassers looking for something unique and adventurous Americana and roots fans who are open to bluegrass sounds.