Tag Archives: bluegrass

Album Review: Billy Strings–Turmoil & Tinfoil

Rating: 6/10

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.

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Album Review: Dori Freeman–Letters Never Read

Rating: 8.5/10

Dori Freeman was one of the coolest discoveries of 2016 for me, coming from out of nowhere and making an absolutely killer debut album. Bringing an Appalachian sound to her brand of country, she displayed a unique talent for taking the traditional and timeless and keeping it forward-thinking and fresh. And not just traditional country either, but vintage pop, bluegrass, and folk as well, proving that the best artists aren’t trapped by genre lines but simply write and perform material that suits them and their individual talents.

Read: Album Review: Dori Freeman Impresses With Her Self-Titled Debut

It seems one of Dori’s talents is a knack for simplicity, and another is instinctively knowing what works for her. IN fact, this record literally feels like a continuation of that first project, and that’s not a bad thing at all. It doesn’t feel like leftovers from the first record or seem as if it’s lacking something new to expand Dori’s sound; rather, it’s like a comforting reminder that Dori Freeman is going to be an artist you can count on for quality music. She’s still mixing up the styles, still singing a lot about love, and even has another a cappella tune on this album in the cover of “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” an old Appalachian song written by her grandfather. So yeah, it’s literally not breaking any new ground, but when something was flawless the first time, why deviate from it?

As mentioned, love is certainly a prevailing theme running through this record. Sometimes, it comes from a place of sheer contentment. “If I Could Make You My own” is sweet and simple in its delivery, and sung by anyone else, the poetic lyrics might come across as sappy and overdone, but Freeman exudes a sincerity that just makes it work to perfection. The same goes for “Turtle Dove.” This one leans more toward that folk/vintage pop style than the former, more traditional country song, and again, it’s delivered with such sincerity that you can’t help but believe the sentiments Dori is expressing.

But more often than not, we’re dealing with the darker sides of love and relationships. “Lovers on the Run” confronts men who make excuses for walking away because they can’t commit, asserting that one day, they will be lonely. This one feels a bit like “Go on Lovin'” from her debut album, but this is told in a more general sense rather than addressed to a specific person. “Just Say it Now” finds Dori confronting the impending end of a relationship and saying that she’s about to be back where she was before it began, “wondering what men are ever looking for.”

And then we have the stunning pair of songs, “That’s all Right” and “Cold Waves.” The former sees Freeman in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic; “you’re passing out, and I’m turning blue.” That natural thing in her voice which sells the sap on “Turtledove” also captures the desperation and heartbreak perfectly here. But despite that, she sings from a place of defiance as she tells the man, “You’ll be the only one whose cross you cannot bear” and looks ahead to when she won’t be with him anymore. She does eventually move on, as conveyed on the album’s crown jewel, “Cold Waves.” This is where the album all comes together, as she’s found a new love, presumably the one from “Turtle Dove,” but the previous abuse still haunts her every day. This is a fantastic song, describing the ongoing pain that she must deal with for the rest of her life as “cold waves” and “blue haze” that surrounds her and makes it hard to push through on some days. Though she is now happy, she will always carry this around with her like a weight, and she prays that her daughter will never know this type of heartache. This has to be one of the best songs written on this subject because it neither paints the abuse as something that permanently debilitated her nor as something from which she can ever completely move on. It’s probably the most realistic song about this that I have ever heard, and as I say, it serves to bring the different parts of the record together as well.

This album is indeed simple, and at only twenty-eight minutes of music, it can seem a little short, especially when four of these ten offerings are covers. But it’s also hard to second guess either the brilliant bluegrass arrangement of “Over There” or the aforementioned “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ dog.” These two songs placed in the heart of the record really add that wonderful Appalachian flavor unique to Dori Freeman and so often overlooked in modern country, both mainstream and independent. And let me just add, how many vocalists in the independent scenes can sing a cappella like this? appreciate the vocal quality of Dori freeman, her smooth, undoubtedly country tone, her ability to enunciate clearly, and understand what it takes to pull off stuff like this song because many of her peers simply couldn’t. “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” is definitely the weakest of the covers; it’s a solid song and a good performance from Dori, but it seems slightly out of place on the record. I wouldn’t call it filler by any stretch, but it just doesn’t really go with the rest of the material here.

In short, this is another great album from Dori Freeman, and she continues to make her mark as a rising artist in the independent country/Americana realms. Her commitment to the old styles and especially to the Appalachian sound is refreshing and indeed sets her apart from many of her counterparts. This is a sparse, simple record, yes, but with Dori Freeman, this is all it takes; in fact, less is often more. It’s not strictly country, but because of her diversity with several different styles, there’s really something here for everyone. Definitely recommend checking this one out.

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Album Review: Flatt Lonesome–Silence in These Walls

Rating: 7/10

In what has admittedly been a mostly failed effort to cover more bluegrass, there is no discovery that has excited me more than the accidental one of Flatt Lonesome. My knowledge of them comes directly as a result of the cool connections I have made from doing this, as Alex Grant of Critically Country requested them on Zack Kephart’s radio show. It was their cover of Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re the One” that I heard that day, and I can honestly say I am not sure I have been as excited about anything I’ve heard this year as I was about that song. It was the warm instrumentation, the ridiculous harmonies, the emotion in the vocals, just everything. I was just impressed, and I was really looking forward to this album and a chance to introduce them to more people. And now that I’ve heard it? It’s not perfect, but you should damn well check out Flatt Lonesome.

I mentioned the harmonies, and they continue to blow me away on this record. “All my Life” and “It’s Just Sad,” the album’s first two tracks, make the strongest moment and showcase their harmonies to the greatest effect. “It’s Just Sad” is a wonderfully written heartbreak song which counters the notion that bluegrass is primarily focused on instrumentation. The details here like how the narrator plays records that remind her of her lover, and half of her still loves them, but the other half can’t stand to listen, really make this song come alive. It’s also unclear whether she was left or widowed, and this makes the song even better, as you can see both sides to the narrative. Kelsi Robertson Harrigill has a vocal tone similar to that of Sara Evans coupled with an uncanny ability to draw feeling and emotion out of every syllable.

After this and the wistful “All my Life,” it is nice to hear something lively and upbeat like “Build me a Bridge,” and the band can pull this style off well too. It’s hard not to hear a song like the closer, “You’re the Reason,” and not smile or get it stuck in your head. But that’s also the beauty of this band; while they can pull off the lively instrumentation almost expected in bluegrass, they also have the songwriting and the vocal ability to go with it. Bluegrass is such a restrictive genre that in order to separate yourself from the sameness often associated with it, you have to add something unique, and Flatt Lonesome certainly do that, both in their careful attention to melodies and harmonies and in the depth of their songwriting.

And I can’t underestimate the value in the sheer vocal ability of this group, as well as the chemistry in the harmonies. They take songs that might seem rather average on paper and put an unforgettable stamp on them. Take a song like the simple love ballad “Falling,” for instance. In the hands of most other bands, this song is probably just boring, but with the excellent harmonies and heartfelt sincerity in the simple words, Flatt Lonesome make it an understated standout of the record.

That’s not to say this album doesn’t have its flaws, and as often happens, some of its strengths also are weaknesses at times. Although Flatt Lonesome is a group best at slow-burning, serious songs, the songwriting has to match, and this does drop off a little in the middle of the album, thereby making that part a little sleepy. Just one more upbeat, fun break probably would have helped this a great deal. “Draw me Near,” though certainly beautiful and showing off all those great harmonies, just simply didn’t need to go on that long. I have listened to this numerous times, and I still can barely remember “Where do You Go,” so I would have been happy if they’d just left that off altogether.

But really, I don’t have any major complaints, and it’s one of those albums that balances out to be consistent, although unlike say, Midland’s which was solid all the way through, this one has some real shining moments and some forgettable stuff. Still, the result is somewhat the same in that it doesn’t give me a whole lot to say; it’s a simple record, and a good one, and one that’s being underrated and overlooked by too many people. Part of why it might not have gotten as much attention is obviously because it’s bluegrass, but another part may have to do with the fact that there’s really not a lot to say, and it’s kind of hard to write about. But it’s not worth overlooking them because this band is one of the brightest spots in bluegrass music right now, and if you’re like me–as in pretty much woefully ignorant of that genre and trying to become better informed–Flatt Lonesome should be right at the top of your list. I think they have tremendous potential, and this album is another nice addition to their discography. If you’ve got any interest at all in getting more familiar with bluegrass, Flatt Lonesome is most certainly a great place to begin.

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Album Review: Laws of Gravity by the Infamous Stringdusters

Rating: 8.5/10

In my mission to cover older 2017 albums, absolutely the first one that deserves to be in line is the Infamous Stringdusters’ Laws of Gravity. Several reasons exist for this–it’s been out longer than any of the others I haven’t had time to write reviews for, going back all the way to the second week of January, I didn’t even know about it until the last week of May due to missing out on a huge chunk of January/February albums by being out of the country, and it’s a bluegrass record, not to mention a kickass bluegrass record. Remember when I reviewed Dailey & Vincent’s Patriots and Poets earlier in the year and talked about how we need more bluegrass coverage? Well, fast forward to July, and that’s the only bluegrass album I’ve covered in 2017. And it’s a shame because this one is just so damn good.

Think bluegrass sounds old-fashioned? I dare you to say that after one listen to this album; no, after one listen to one minute of the opening song, “Freedom.” I don’t know how, but the Infamous Stringdusters manage to sound at once vintage and forward-thinking all throughout the record. Think bluegrass all sounds the same? Try asserting that after you’ve heard the wonderfully bluesy tones of “This Ol’ Building” and the slightly more modern-sounding “Let me Know.” Think that yeah, the instrumentation is good, and all that fiddle and banjo is cool, but lyrics are secondary? To that, I submit the exhibits “Black Elk” and “1901: a Canyon Odyssey,” both excellent story songs. Basically, this is the album to introduce people to bluegrass with–yeah, I know I’ve only heard like, twelve albums myself at this point, but if your friend who sure, maybe can get behind some country but is bluegrass ignorant, is looking for something, refer them straight to this.

And no disrespect to Dailey & Vincent because there really were some good songs on that album, but my knowledge of bluegrass, or rather my lack thereof, was proved apparent when I heard this record and realized just how cool it could actually get. That’s an apology to bluegrass more than an underrating of Dailey & Vincent, it’s just that this 8.5 is miles better than that 7, and it sort of renders that 7 more like a 6 to 6.5. But back to the album at hand.

I mentioned the things that set Laws of Gravity apart in the world of bluegrass, but it’s only fair to the genre and to this band to be a little cliché and talk about the ridiculous instrumentation. Fiddles, banjos, mandolins, etc., all played with speed and precision, character and nuance, and, as stated, at once embodying the past but managing to stay very fresh and modern. There’s an indefinable quality to this album that makes it special and which it’s hard to put into words; this inability to accurately describe my feelings in a way that does the record true and full justice, along with the time constraints, has kept me from writing this down even after having become quite acquainted with the record. It’s something intangible that you get from hearing this music, something warm and lively and maybe just fun. It’s like, even when they’re spinning a sad tale, those fiddles just put a smile on your face, like the bluegrass equivalent of what Turnpike Troubadours manage to accomplish with songs like “Seven Oaks” and “Doreen.” I don’t think it’s something I can fully explain, but that minute of “Freedom” that you take to figure out it’s not old-fashioned will also make you fully aware of what I mean.

At thirteen tracks, this runs a bit long. There are some truly great lyrical moments here, but songs like “Soul searching” and “back Home” are generally lost in the mix for me when I listen because they possess neither great lyrics nor overly remarkable instrumentation. “Vertigo” also could have been trimmed, although it does hold my attention a bit more because it features some cooler instrumentation and more interesting chords. It’s not that any of the songs are bad, but at thirteen tracks and especially fifty-four minutes, it could have benefited from losing some of the filler. It would have made an absolutely incredible ten-track album.

As it is, this is still a very good record from the Infamous Stringdusters, and I’m just sorry it took me so long to give it a proper write-up. I don’t know much about bluegrass, and I’m not going to pretend to, but I do know good music ,and friends, this most certainly is it. You probably have already done so since I’m so ridiculously late to the party, but if you haven’t, go check this out!

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Album Review: Patriots and Poets by Dailey & Vincent

Rating: 7/10

Let me preface this by saying I have absolutely no authority on bluegrass; I can probably count the number of bluegrass albums I’ve ever even listened to on two hands, and that’s being generous. It’s something I want to rectify, but right now, I can’t tell you what makes good bluegrass music–so patience, bluegrass fans–but I know when I hear good music, and this album deserves my attention despite my ignorance. Besides, bluegrass doesn’t get talked about enough on these blogs, and that only furthers the ignorance of country listeners like myself. So with that in mind, I’d like to present my favorable, if somewhat clueless, thoughts on the new Dailey & Vincent record, Patriots and Poets.

As I probably say way too often, I place a great deal of importance on album openers. They can set the tone of the record and sometimes decide whether or not I’ll even listen. ‘this album opens with the energetic love song “Gimme All the Love You Got,” and it held my attention right away. That says even more considering my relationship with bluegrass. There are several other highlights on the front half of the record. “Baton Rouge” and “Until We’re Gone” seem to go together; the former is an upbeat track with some excellent fiddle where the narrator is driving from Baton Rouge to Birmingham to be with his lover. The latter, featuring Taranda Green, is about a couple who are still together after many years despite people telling them in the beginning that they were too young. The two songs are both standouts, but together, they tell an even better story. “Bill and Ole Elijah” is another great song, this one about two cell mates who become lifelong friends. Bill wants to escape, but Elijah convinces him it would be foolish. IN the end, Elijah escapes and leaves a note for Bill, telling him to run north because all the guards and dogs are headed south after Elijah. He says his life is through anyway, and he’d rather die this way than in the cell with Bill. It’s a really nice story with that great instrumentation only found in bluegrass. “Unsung Heros” is a nice ode to the people who don’t get recognized for their good deeds. It’s a little sappy, for lack of a better word, but it has a good message, and a lot of people will surely enjoy it. I mentioned instrumentation before, and I have to add that the album’s two instrumental tracks, “Spring Hill” and “255 North” are pretty great as well.

The back half of the record starts to drag on a little. This album is sixteen songs, and some of the back half could have been left off without effect. There’s nothing bad, but it’s not as memorable. One gigantic exception is “Here comes the Flood,” arguably the best song on the whole thing lyrically. It tells the story of a flood that wrecked a town and ruined a family farm; eventually, the narrator’s dad drinks himself to death. The lyrics combined with the vocal delivery make this one something you should absolutely hear. The other highlight of the back half is “That Feel Good Music,” a fiddle-driven track lamenting the disappearance of the music from the past. It follows “Here Comes the Flood” which really brightens up the album after the darkness of that track.

As I mentioned, the album tends to drag on some, especially in the back half. There are several religious songs which is by no means a bad thing, but with the exception of “Beautiful Scars” on the front half of the album, I didn’t find any of them especially memorable. “America, we Love You,” the last track with words, comes from an honest place, naming off different towns across the country and speaking of the group’s experiences, but it feels a little underdeveloped. It’s solid, as all these tracks are, but in an album of sixteen songs, it’s one that gets lost.

If it were up to me, I’d probably have cut this down to ten songs, and that would have made a killer album. As it is, it’s a sixteen-track album with many good songs and some filler. But the good is pretty great, and I definitely suggest checking this out. You won’t want for banjo and fiddle and lively, fun instrumentation. There is some really nice songwriting in places too, and the front half of the album is pretty great throughout. If you aren’t very familiar with bluegrass, this is a nice place to start. And if you’re a bluegrass fan, this is another good album for you to enjoy. It compelled me to do a bluegrass review, so that’s special in itself. Definitely give this a listen.

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