Alt-bluegrass? Nu-country? Who Cares -- It's Great.
Crooked Still’s last record, Still Crooked, opened with “Undone in Sorrow”, a tune every bit as dark and mournful as its title suggests. This time around, opener “Sometimes in This Country” opens the proceedings with considerably less grimness. Wistfulness is still there to be sure, but the bleakness has been ameliorated somewhat. That, in a nutshell, sums up this latest excellent offering from a band that deserves much more recognition.
The Boston-based rootsy/alt-bluegrass/nu-country/Americana/neo-traditional (can we forget about the labels now?) quintet has been making complex, heartfelt music since their 2004 debut, Hop High, relying on an unorthodox lineup to keep its eyes on the acoustic prize. Corey DiMario’s bass and Tristan Clarridge’s cello underpin the staccato banjo picking of Gregory Liszt and the mournful swell of Brittany Haas’s violin. Above all this floats Aoife O’Donovan’s breathy, ethereal singing, sounding something like Espers’ Meg Baird, but somehow nicer.
This new release is every bit as accomplished and engaging as their previous records, and in some ways outshines them. Although there is nothing quite as bleak as Still Crooked‘s “Low Down and Dirty” or as frenetic as “The Absentee,” the band still manages to twist heartstrings while showing impressive musical chops. “Sometimes in This Country” builds nicely from a nervous opening of plucked banjo, piling on the sounds and hitting its halfway point amid a layered profusion of banjo, fiddle, cello, bass, and, of course, O’Donovan’s ghostly vocals.
The energy flags slightly after this, notwithstanding Ricky Skaggs’s guest-vocals on “The Golden Vanity”, but another traditional standard, “Henry Lee” picks up the pace once more, injecting a welcome shot of typical old-timey blood ‘n guts into the proceedings: “She took him by his long yellow hair / She dragged him by his feet / She threw him down a cool dark well / Full fifty fathoms deep”. This is followed by “Half of What We Know”, an original composition by O’Donovan that is more pleasant than compelling, before barn-burner “Locust in the Willow” ups the ante with its hyperbolic banjo picking.
But roots music like this, despite its bluegrass influence, isn’t only about how fast the picker’s fingers can fly. Lizst uses his banjo in strikingly expressive ways, whether mournfully bending the strings on the opening to “Turning Away”, or striking a slow, almost elegaic cadence on “You Were Gone”. The rest of the band are no slouches either, with fiddle and cello often intertwining in musical duets, and if one occasionally wishes that O’Donovan’s range extended a little further beyond sincere and really sincere, well, the instrumentals do a fine job of stepping in and distracting you. The band’s tightness brings a soulful groove to “Calvary”, a head-bobbing gospel song concerning Jesus’ crucifixion. Didn’t see that coming.
The final song, “You Got the Silver”, is an unexpected cover of Let It Bleed-era Rolling Stones, with O’Donovan finally cutting loose a bit—whispering, yelping, gliding wistfully—and Keef’s guitar licks reinterpreted by banjo and fiddle. It’s a fitting end to a diverse and impressive album, and a sign that the band has a sense of playfulness and the courage to move in unexpected directions. Still, I’m waiting for them to cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Or maybe “Helter Skelter”. Maybe then we can forget about the labels for good.