Lonely Heartstring Band- Smoke & Ashes review

I had anticipated Lonely Heartstring Band would make an Alberta festival appearance this summer, and perhaps they will. However they won’t be at the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival, and that is too bad–they are one of the truly intriguing, leading edge bands in the new acoustic Americana universe. My review of their second album has been published at Country Standard Time. This is still not the type of music I want to listen to when I reach for a bluegrass album, but it is excellent music, superbly produced played by musicians of considerable skill. I have come to appreciate what they do. My published review is here: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=6858

I had to cut a few hundred words of rambling to fit CST standards. For those who are interested, here is the less focused piece of writing I revised for publication; it isn’t better, but it is longer:

The Lonely Heartstring Band Smoke & Ashes Rounder

The problem with writing about music is…

With time, you sometimes change your opinion about an album or set of music. There could be a number of reasons for that evolution of position—either the listener/writer wasn’t ‘ready’ for the music, or wasn’t in the right mind space to accept the music. And sometimes, the writer just blows it.

Many of us remember the criticism certain albums received upon release, but which—with hindsight—are seminal recordings: The Style Council’s Confessions of a Pop Group, perhaps, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and every album from Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

All of which is a long way of saying I may have missed some of the brilliance of The Lonely Heartstring Band’s debut recording, Deep Waters. I stand by much of what I wrote in my review.

I still think “If I Had a Hammer” lacks vitality, but dropping a Jackson Browne reference might have been just mean. On the whole, the album has aged (two-and-a-half years) well. It is every bit as smooth as I remember, and the instrumental interplay between the musicians is obviously keen. The original material holds up, and George Clements’ lead vocals are as appealing as ever.

“The Look In My Eye” is a better song than I previously thought (although not near bluegrass by any definition), but Maddie Witler’s approach to mandolin may have slipped my notice. Patrick M’Gonigle’s fiddle expertise didn’t.

Deep Waters was a pretty good album, a solid 4/5 although I rated it lower at the time. Smoke & Ashes surpasses it by a significant margin.

The opening “Reverie” ably sets the tone for Smoke & Ashes: tasteful, somewhat mysterious, and abounding with an appealing tension. The tension comes at least partly from LHsB increasing the ‘push-pull’ between their music’s bluegrass roots and their ever-arching Americana branches.

The days of those finding comfort under the bluegrass umbrella having to serve long apprenticeships of servitude under the controlling hand of a tyrannical, bluegrass overlord are long past. LHsB are proving, alongside some of their acoustic cousins, that there is a different path available to today’s highly skilled, articulate, and (relatively) youthful bluegrass musician.

As a result, their bluegrass doesn’t sound like 1956’s, or even 2006’s, bluegrass. 

“Only Fallen Down” is a beautiful love song with an a cappella introduction, engaging mood and tempo changes, and noteworthy mandolin notes from Maddie Witler. And as LHsB do across the album, it is complemented by that which follows, a more up-tempo piece, but equally appealing and engaging, “The Other Side.” Witler again shines, but the vocal harmony is even stronger, the timbre of the song slightly more aggressive.

LHsB are a complete unit.

The harmonies between brothers George and Charles Clements are masterful, reminding one frequently of Simon & Garfunkel, perhaps most deliberately on the closing “Last Refrain.”

M’Gonigle joins in vocally, but his fiddle playing is most noteworthy, weaving across the vocal and instrumental harmonies with precision, providing each song with a slightly sonic intensity.

Either Gabe Hirshfeld’s unhurried right hand is ideally suited to the LHsB’s music, or his playing style has given the group their signature sound; either way, his approach is entirely in synch with the overall vision they’ve established.

Sequencing of an album’s songs is important, but it isn’t usually enough to make or break a recording. Especially a bluegrass one. But it is testament to the detailed awareness the group brings to their music on this second album. Produced by Bridget Kearney (Lake Street Dive, Joy Kills Sorrow), Smoke & Ashes unabashedly embraces the LHsB’s jazz and pop/rock sensibilities within a fertile bluegrass grounding.

One can hear only the faintest stirrings of ‘high’ and ‘lonesome’ in “Red Bird Flies,” but it’s a plum pitiful song regardless, with “desert wind, a moonlight dance,” a rodeo that has “left the town,” and the lingering question of “why the red bird flies away from here.” Even darker is “Borderlands,” a tale of small-town desperation, The Rolling Stones, and self-determination.

The Lonely Heartstring Band create complex and wide-ranging acoustic music. There will be those who refuse to accept their sounds as ‘bluegrass,’ but there isn’t really anything else it can be called. It is a far cry from what many of us would have considered to be bluegrass even a decade ago, but the music is evolving and LHsB is leading the way.

I’d still like to have them cut loose on “Ruby, Are You Mad?” next time!

[Review based on supplied CD.]

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