Another album here that comes from my back burner, and another one of the few bluegrass projects I’ve been able to cover this year. With the incredible amount of music to listen to, you might look at this rating and find it strange that I’d choose to pull this one from the back burner and make sure it got a full-length review in 2017. Surely there might be better stuff to highlight?
But it’s not the rating that’s important here; there are some truly disappointing sixes–as you’ll see soon–because you feel like an artist is capable of so much more. And then there are sixes where you’re excited because an artist is still developing, and you see past this project to the full potential, and with this album, it’s definitely a case of the latter.
With bluegrass in particular, there’s this stereotype hanging over the music, and often for good reason, that much of it is the same. It’s great that it stays so connected to the roots of that genre, but it often lacks the vibrancy and youthfulness needed to keep it interesting and sustain it in these times. And because of the potential for sameness, there’s also an even more pronounced urgency to set yourself apart from the rest. With Flatt Lonesome, it’s the songwriting and the sheer vocal chemistry and talent. With the Infamous Stringdusters, it’s the incredible instrumentation and the experiments with different sounds, like the bluesy tones of “This ol’ Building.” With Billy Strings, it’s experimental sounds as well, woven into this album so that you come away wondering why no one else has thought of this before.
This is most present on the front half of the album. “Meet me at the Creek” is just a stellar, nine-minute exhibition of bluegrass awesomeness. “Living Like an Animal,” though completely minimalist in its approach, staying on basically one chord, has an animal-like sound echoing through it that takes it from totally boring to infinitely interesting. The title track is similar, with long instrumental breaks and an almost Middle Eastern riff to set it apart from every other bluegrass tune endlessly parading along in this key. It’s the ability and ingenuity of Billy Strings to alter these songs only the slightest bit and recreate them as something fresh and vibrant within this incredibly restrictive genre while still keeping that genre’s roots intact which makes this most impressive. “While I’m Waiting Here” and “On the Line,” though not especially different instrumentally, do stand out for their songwriting on this half of the record. But again, songwriting is not the ultimate strength of Billy Strings or of this project, it’s the fresh, forward-thinking approach brought to the instrumentation and sound, especially on this front half.
And that’s why this particular album falls short in the back half. It starts to become no different than any other bluegrass record. Well, except for the incredibly weird, acid-dropping experience that is “Spinning,” but that’s not experimentation with bluegrass, that’s just a strange rambling about multiverses and women with skirts made of various body parts…yeah. The message is that we should all work together, but it’s delivered in the strangest way humanly possible. Other than that, though, the album is just pretty typical in the back half. That’s not to say it’s necessarily bad, and if you’re more of a bluegrass fan, you might like it better. For me, seeking out only the best in the genre, this half does little to establish Billy Strings as anything different than what’s going on in the rest of bluegrass.
However, it’s the cool, promising stuff on the front half of the record that makes Billy Strings someone to keep an eye on and which leaves me excited as a listener. This hasn’t been one of the easiest reviews to write because there’s just not a ton to say for me, especially given the boring parts of this album. But the parts of this record where Billy shines, so infused with life and spirit and bringing something absolutely unique and fresh to this genre, cannot be ignored and are the reason I kept coming back and searching for words for this project. This is not the best bluegrass album I have heard all year, but indeed, some parts of this constitute the best and most interesting bluegrass I have heard in my entire, though incredibly limited, experience with this genre. I am certainly looking forward to what Billy Strings could develop into, but for now, we definitely have some promise here.