Split Lip Rayfield doesn’t necessarily lambaste bluegrass; instead, think of the band as a group of mischievous older brothers that turn conventions on their heads and give them a twirl. Like a tickle attack that leaves the victim punished and helpless. A strong chance of scarring, but no permanent damage. If Split Lip Rayfield is a bully, though, it’s a well-educated bully: its quartet of quick pickers is just as skilled in traditions as it is in perverting them.
Should Have Seen It Coming, the Wichita, Kansas band’s fourth full-length for the Chicago roots label Bloodshot, is a bloodied-fingertip blur of saucy bluegrass. But don’t let the strictly acoustic instrumentation (mandolin, banjo, guitar, bass) and four-part harmonies fool you. Split Lip Rayfield is most likely the only bluegrass band that can boast performing with both Del McCoury and Nashville Pussy. That’s really more of a telling factoid than a contradictory one, for if there was a strain of bluegrass that induced headbanging, Split Lip Rayfield would be its Ramones. Twang of this nature refers not only to the resonating banjo strings, but to the whiplash crack rifling from a sea of flailing necks.
There are two kinds of Split Lip Rayfield songs: those that flare out of the gate with such ridiculous abandon you can smell the rubber burn, and those that can be called “breathers”, the occasional moments where the sweat-stained armpits are given a chance to dry. The band puts its emphasis on the former, setting up a series of 100-meter dashes and knocking them down. Relying so heavily on virtuosity and breakneck tempos does breed a sort of mixed success; sometimes the songs themselves seem thin once you’ve gotten past the flashy showmanship. Then again, when music like this is so committed to setting your ears on fire, it’s safe to assume its creators aren’t so concerned with what you’ll notice once the flames have been doused.
Still, Should Have Seen It Coming‘s most charged moments are impressive. No matter how fast the tune, or how scatterbrained the phrasing, the band keeps its instruments and harmonies locked as tight as one could possibly expect. The convulsive mandolin in “Truth and Lies” is as prickly as a tongue pressed to a battery, the song itself like a hoedown fueled on Jolt cola. The technical marvel of agility and endurance in “Lonely Man Blues” is unexpectedly superseded by an inventive assault of chords and exultant resolution. “Redneck Tailgate Dream”, a song saluting the high life of TNN and dippin’ chew, is the one instance of Split Lip Rayfield’s primary formula slipping into novelty (thanks in large part to lines like “Coors Light’s pouring down my throat / Last week I puked in my cousin’s boat”).
The kinder, gentler Split Lip Rayfield is exhibited through those “breather” songs. The band defies bluegrass preconceptions by weaving pop melodies into “Honestly” and “Promise Not to Tell”, and disarms itself for reflection in the cheekily titled “Just Like a Gillian Welch Song”. There’s still an irrepressible urge to not play it straight in the ballads—most notably the colloquial humor of “I was your bitch for a while but I paid off that debt” from the otherwise patient “Don’t Believe That You’re Someone”—which blocks the album from maintaining a nice balance of guffaws and gravity.
Regardless of its flaws, Should Have Seen It Coming does offer plenty of virtues in its urgency and sheer physical expression. Bluegrass aficionados will likely revel in the band’s dazzling command of the frets, and even those who don’t claim to be fans of the genre will find their jaws dropping on every other song. For Split Lip Rayfield, it’s all about the onslaught of fierce pickin’: its whirlwind concoctions use speed to blindside any further scrutiny.