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Trampled by Turtles
Stars and Satellites
Trampled by Turtles, five hairballs from Duluth, hit the jamgrass jackpot with 2010’s Palamino, building a strong connection with audiences through their intense thrashgrass attack and drawing in the post-Yonder rock kids who love pogoing to the banjocore propulsion of the Turts’ live shows. For this follow-up, the band could have taken the faster-harder-louder route. Thankfully, they focused on songs instead, preferring soaring melodies, pensive lyrics, and dreamy musical arrangements. Sure, the band unleashes some delerious energy a time or two, namely the bullet-train charge of “Risk”, but most of the time TxT prove that they are one jamgrass bunch that exists not only for chicken-jigging festival crowds, but are also one that makes records strong enough to transcend the scene.
In Good Company
Bill Evans is the great bluegrass banjo ambassador as an innovator on the instrument, a master stylist, and a prolific instructor: if you hear someone play the banjo well, they probably learned from Bill Evans or learned from someone else who did. So an album like In Good Company is overdue, a collection that pairs Evans with bluegrass, newgrass, and roots players who inspired by him. The collaborators are too many to list here, but some highlights include the Infamous Stringdusters on “Walk on Water” (featuring a headspinning banjo war with Chris Pandolfi) and “On and On”, an exquisite alliance with Joy Kills Sorrow. Throw in a four-song medley of Evans’ ingenious interpretations of Beatles songs, and you have an indispensable record for banjo enthusiasts and merely an astoundingly lovely listen for everyone else.
Steep Canyon Rangers
Nobody Knows You
It’s no secret that the Steep Canyon Rangers have enjoyed rising stock thanks in large part to their recent partnership with a certain wild and crazy guy. However, the Rangers deserve some time to themselves, which makes their new album for Rounder such a welcome venture. Woody Platt and the boys take full advantage of the opportunity on Nobody Knows You, not by trying to astound anyone with flash or speed, but by combining refined melodies and introspective lyrics braced by uniformly first-rate playing and harmonizing. The Rangers are critical traditionalists, but they veer just far enough into progressive structures this time out to make Nobody Knows You sound both committed to time-honored finesse and to taking the next step in the evolution of one of bluegrass’s most valuable bands.
North Carolina’s Balsam Range made waves in the bluegrass world with 2010’s Trains I Missed, and this year’s Papertown seals the deal that these five mountain boys are one of the genre’s most consistently fine bands. The 13 humdingers on Papertown are deftly arranged and played throughout, and Buddy Melton’s gorgeous tenor is bluegrass gold, often sounding like the second coming of New Grass Revival’s John Cowan. Check out those harmonies on “Any Old Gold” or Marc Pruett’s breakneck banjo on “Day in the Life of a Railroad Spike” or Darren Nicholson’s wily guitar on the Allman Brothers cover “One Way Out”. Or any other stellar moment in a bluegrass record stuffed with them.
Who’s Feeling Young Now?
Sure, crotchety purists will argue that Punch Brothers have no place on a bluegrass list, but, hey, who’s feeling young now? Indeed, songs like “Movement and Location” are far more indebted to Radiohead than to Ralph Stanley, but check out “Don’t Get Married Without Me”, which sounds closest to the signature Punch Brothers sound in 2012. The instrumentation runs the course from classical to ragtime to bop to avant-grass, providing a zig-zag backdrop to a rugged verse that melds into a dreamy, falsetto-abetted chorus showcasing high-and-tight harmonies. Once again, head Bro Chris Thile offers up more schizophrenic lyricism, but it’s nostalgic and romantic schizophrenia. Overall, if you’re interested in modern acoustic music at its most dynamic, passionate, progressive, and deftly played, Who’s Feeling Young Now? is an essential document and another mesmerizing step forward.