on 19 January 2014
Here's a brand new genre for you in 2014 - Prog Bluegrass you might care to call it - as demonstrated by the centrepiece of this fine studio offering from Railroad Earth. The 21-minute collage, "All That's Dead May Live Again / Face With A Hole", spread across two segued tracks, is the major talking point here, an impressive display of instrumental virtuosity and dexterity with enough in the way of ebb and flow to keep it interesting.
Of course there seems to be less and less actual bluegrass with each passing RRE album, even though they do seem to have taken a step back from the more mainstream sheen given to them by producer Angelo Montrone last time out. The band have chosen to produce themselves this time, and that's where they drop half a star in my assessment. Top producers earn their corn for a reason. They're not an unnecessary luxury. Bands are often too close to their own work to be the best judges, objectively, of how to realise their ideas. Good though these songs are, at times you do get a nagging sense that the band are maybe just a little too satisfied with themselves. I can't quite shake the feeling that in the right hands this could have been a complete masterpiece but instead, it just falls short.
But it's still pretty good.
"Chasin' A Rainbow" "Monkey" and especially "One More Night On The Road" keep the toes tapping nicely whilst "Hangtown Ball" and "Grandfather Mountain" are the latest in a long line of easy-on-the-ear mid-tempo outings that the band seem to churn out so effortlessly.
The title track is rather subdued, taking its time to get where it's going; an example of where a sprinkling of production magic-dust might have made all the difference.
But overall, it's another impressive release by RRE even if highly unlikely to cause even the tiniest ripple on these shores. It's our loss.
Railroad Earth are nominally a bluegrass band but one that has embraced other genres, other styles, including folk, country, Celtic rock, roots and jazz. From these influences they produce sounds that can defy categorisation but which interact with each other to produce something quite magical.
True to expectations the opening track "Chasin' A Rainbow" is a fiddle led bluegrass piece with Celtic swirls, and "Grandfather Mountain" is a gorgeous folk oriented ballad with solid banjo and piano, soaring fiddle and the evocative voice of Todd Sheaffer singing of the "oldest eyes upon the planet, watching ages come and go".
At almost nine minutes long this track is not typical folksy bluegrass fare however, and the dense musical layering of this piece is the perfect intro into the grandeur of "All That's Dead May Live Again" a majestic and commanding eleven and a half minute excursion through the influences, emotions, melodies, styles and lyrical splendours of the band arranged over five movements. It's a stunning achievement brimming with inventiveness and a subtle beauty with each movement weaving the separate parts into a seamless whole. The sextet play an impressive array of instruments including the rarely heard bass clarinet, baritone violin and bouzouki and create a powerful and eclectic symphony of sound.
From the final movement of this piece the band segues into the two movements of "Face With A Hole", a nine minute opus that opens with harmony vocals and dense, swirling, Celtic melodies while the second movement "In Paradisium" is a reflective, pastoral and gentle instrumental.
These two pieces of seven movements are staggering in their ambition but more so in their execution which has transcended so many boundaries to such profound effect.
After such grandiose splendour the band swings into "Monkeys" a Jackson Browne inspired number, the bluegrass inflected "Hangtown Ball" and the rootsy "One More Night On The Road" which by any standards of 21st Century Americana speak of excellence. But it is the visionary "All That's Dead....." and "Face With A Hole" that elevates this album to a higher plane, lets it linger longer in the memory and, perhaps, points to a new direction for this multi talented outfit.
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