on 8 September 2005
Prior to hearing this album, my opinion of Bluegrass was a rather simplistic one - I hadn't actually heard much, and I had written it off as repetitive and sentimental. This album changed my view, and has led to considerable exploration of modern bluegrass recordings. This release, tragically the only one from this superb quintet, features supreme musicianship, coupled to stunning technical ability, and a tremendously inventive group sound.
The compositions here are written to a system - given that there are five members in the band, you can form ten different pairings of musicians, and this is what they did, with each pairing writing a piece. This results in a fascinating blend of influences, sounds and arrangements, and shows why every one of these five has become renowned as masters of their instruments. Although written in pairs, the pieces here are played by a group superbly in tune, and enjoying every minute. It is rare that five musicians of this calibre play together, and they seem to relish the chance to lock horns with musical equals.
Personal favourites include "Duke and Cookie", featuring some incredible dobro work from Jerry Douglas, over Bela Fleck's intricate banjo licks, and an outstanding double bass solo from Edgar Meyer. "Texas Red" is tight and focused, and Mark O'Connor's fiddle seems effortless and playful, with Meyer adding superb bowed bass in the intro, and Sam Bush on fire on mandolin. Jerry Douglas is in supreme form again. Mark O'Connor shows his multi-instrumental prowess with truly inspiring guitar on the evocative "Slopes", including a stunning solo. Bela Fleck (with whom he co-wrote this piece) does things with the banjo that seemed impossible to me before this session.
To hear five superb musicians in powerful, joyful form, buy this album. To hear progressive bluegrass that encompasses elements of the classical and jazz styles with endless invention, buy this album. This is the only recording that Strength in Numbers ever produced, and it would be a crime to miss it.
on 25 December 2003
Hidden inside what must be one of the least attractive and attention-getting CD covers ever is some of the very best hot-licks bluegrass fusion music to be found anywhere, written and performed by five artists who are by now legendary, more than a dozen years after the release of this album.
Perhaps the fairly recent popularity of Edgar Meyer’s “Short Trip Home” (STH) will draw the attention of listeners unfamiliar with this type of music to this group and this album. It is not a stretch to say that this is the better album of the two: With Meyer, O’Connor, Fleck, Bush and Douglas, there is never an “odd man out,” as is the case for STH; everyone here is in his element.
Those wishing a direct comparison between the two albums should start at the end of this one, with “Blue Men of the Sahara.” After a somewhat “reserved” start, this track winds up with a fury that is every bit the equal of “Death by Triple Fiddle” on the STH album. Continuing in reverse order for a bit, “Slopes” gives Fleck, on banjo, and O’Connor, here on guitar, the opportunity to swap hot choruses; in my humble opinion, the best track on the album, thanks to Fleck’s finger-bending (and mind-bending) work.
The triple-threat (fiddle, guitar, mandolin) talents of O’Connor are found throughout the album. As one who came rather late to the appreciation of this man’s monster talents, it is a pleasant surprise to me to hear that he was in as fine and as fully-developed a form in 1988 as he is today.
Of the five, Meyer seems always to be the catalyst (as can be seen from all the subsequent albums he’s been the focal point of throughout the years, mixing and matching the talents of all the individuals). With his inestimable contributions to this and later albums, it is difficult — but necessary — to keep in mind that he leads a second, and equally public, life as a classical contrabassist and composer!
This is a seminal album, setting down a genre a dozen years ago that is as hot and as fresh today as when it was first released. May it never go out of print. And, with the benefit of 60 collective years of work by these five, may they soon go back into the studio for a long-awaited sequel.
on 27 May 2013
Is it a sum of its parts? Doing the arithmetic, adding together five of the most terrific musicians ever, the answer should be pretty awesome (as the yanks would say).
But is it pretty awesome? There are some pretty awesome moments, but as a whole I'm not sure it is. I think that playing music is just too easy for these blokes. There's just no edge to it, there's no effort. There's no dirt. There simply isn't strength in numbers.
I think that playing music is not a numbers game, there's no art in numbers.
It's a real shame, because you'd think there should be strength in an album of such great players. And really great music has come from all of these players, especially when guesting on each others' recordings. So why doesn't that translate here? Dunno.