Deadly Gentlemen & Steep Canyon Rangers reviews

rollmetumbleme1-300x300A couple of my reviews have been posted over at the Lonesome Road Review. The Deadly Gentlemen album is quite stunning, but definitely will not appeal to all bluegrass fans. It is a little bit out there, but I just love the mood the album inspires.

The Deadly Gentlemen
Roll Me, Tumble Me
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Like it or not, bluegrass music is evolving.

It has been written many times in many ways, but much of the music currently associated with the term ‘bluegrass’ is no small bit removed from that created by the founders of the music.

The Deadly Gentlemen, a quintet based in Massachusetts, are among the recent bands whose music is close enough to warrant mention within conversations about bluegrass, but is so different as to further blur the vision of those who look at music through myopic lenses.

Deadly Gents songwriting principal Greg Liszt—Virginia native, molecular biologist, Americana practitioner with the likes of Crooked Still as well as Bruce Springsteen’s banjoist of choice for The Seeger Sessions—may serve as the musical core of the group, but the entirety of their acoustic foundation is firmly entrenched.

Liszt’s four-finger style of playing is unusual, but one doesn’t notice an obvious difference when listening. What is curious is their approach to vocals. Rather than utilizing lead with two or three part harmony, a choral group approach more familiar to other contemporary music is the Deadly Gentlemen’s preference.

Lead singer Stash Wuslouch has an affable vocal quality, with fiddler Mike Barnett most frequently joining in on co-leads. The group has a distinctive sound, one that is woody, hollow, and oh so refreshing. The entire group takes responsibility for arranging Liszt’s songs, and one can (perhaps mistakenly) attribute the liveliness of the recording to the members’ playing off each other. Dominick Leslie’s mandolin playing is impressive throughout, and while bass player Sam Grisman recently left the group, his presence on the recording is significant.

Outside their instruments of choice, the Deadly Gentlemen have as much in common with the Beatles, Dan Fogelberg, and Mumford & Sons as they do the Osborne Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Dailey & Vincent. Their songs are simultaneously dreamy and earthy with a vibe that both trippy and grounded.

Sometimes they are frantic in their approach (“A Faded Star”), while at other times they are subtle and emotive (“Bored of the Raging” and “Beautiful’s Her Body.”) While there are breaks and fills, the instrumental parameters of this group are not as hard and fast as one may associate with standard bluegrass, albeit that there are extreme variation in approach within even the most ‘traditional’ of the music.

Their songs are wordy, sometimes dense and frequently poetic. The Deadly Gents don’t sing of mountain homes, mothers and grandmothers, and ploughs in the field, but they do consider “what might have been” (“I Fall Back”), the passing of time (“It’ll End Too Soon” and “Now Is Not The Time”), and failing relationships (“All The Broken Pieces.”) The subject manner therefore, if not its execution, is complementary to the traditions of acoustic roots music.

This writer’s favorite song is the slightly twisted “Working,” although the atmospheric sound of the title track is what was first noticed. “Working” pretty much sums up the ironic, occasionally pithy, philosophy of the album: it isn’t perfect, but it’s only music.

Work’s not bad and work’s not hard,

I don’t kill chickens or break rocks in a yard.

Work’s not bad and it’s not that tough,

I’m not breaking my neck, or my back, or my balls in the rough.

Is this bluegrass? I don’t think so—for me it falls into that appealing world I call acoustiblue. If it is bluegrass, it is out on the farthest branches of the Rowan tree.

Does it matter? When Roll Me, Tumble Me completed its initial play through, I smiled and the first thought that came to mind was, “That was good.”

And, it is.

The Steep Canyon Rangers tell_the_onesmost recent disc Tell The Ones I Love is more obviously bluegrass, but also- in places- goes to more mainstream, Americana directions. It is an entirely excellent recording.

Steep Canyon Rangers
Tell The Ones I Love
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Of the bluegrass bands that have emerged during the past decade, the Steep Canyon Rangers are the group, in this writer’s opinion,  that have most acutely established a positive career trajectory balancing a palatable regard for the roots of bluegrass music while taking it to new and eminently listenable places.

Since 2002, each of their album has been a demonstration of their evolving vision of bluegrass, one that challenges perceptions of the music while ensuring it retains all the elements that make the music so emotionally and aurally satisfying. The quintet adds to the music certainly, but nothing they do—whether it be brushed percussion, more propulsive drumming (as on “Stand and Deliver”), or bringing in gutsy gospel touches—detracts from allowing the music to stand as bluegrass.

Maintaining a stable lineup enhances familiarity, and their cohesion is apparent. Everything is tight, the arrangements impressive. Trills of mandolin and banjo fill quiet spots, while at other times they provide drive, fiddle sweeps in and out, and the bass pulses. Woody Platt’s guitar leads are notable and well-placed, while his rhythm parts sound true. In particular, Nicky Sanders comes to the fore throughout the album, with lively, playful, and evocative fiddling.

Platt has two distinctive voices, one slightly languid and bluesy (as on the outstanding “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken,” a song co-written by bassist Charles R. Humphrey III and Jonathan Byrd), the other more frequently utilized, smooth country soul, as on the gentle epic “Camellia” and “Tell The Ones I Love,” which also features a mystical mandolin preface from Mike Guggino. In a deeper register, banjoist Graham Sharp takes the lead vocals on “Stand and Deliver.” The instrumental “Graveyard Fields” showcases the band’s collective chops, something every track seems to be best designed to do.

Mid-album, “Boomtown” and “Mendocino County Line” take the group further into the rootsy Americana field than some will be comfortable with, but these are simply amazing performances.

Advancing bluegrass while maintaining its focus, the Steep Canyon Rangers retain a natural approach to acoustic music. Recorded largely off the floor, with producers Larry Campbell and Justin Guip at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, Tell The Ones I Love is a stunning collection of modern bluegrass, and arguably their best to date.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

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