“Newgrass” is one of those horrible, Brangelina-type terms in which the components are exponentially more insufferable together than they are apart. Generally, it’s a musical hybrid that’s too twee for the indie crowd, and too modern for bluegrass purists. Luckily, the Infamous Stringdusters have, in the vein of Old Crow Medicine Show and Chatham County Line, arrived at a sound on their second full-length album that pleases bluegrassers and hipsters alike, seamlessly welding tradition and innovation into an irresistible sound.
Unlike many bluegrass bands, the Infamous Stringdusters trade off lead vocals between bass player Travis Book, fiddler Jeremy Garrett, and dobro player Andy Hall. There’s none of the Monrovian high lonesome falsettos that have been a keystone of bluegrass for decades, but the background vocals display traditional brotherly harmonies, quite a feat since none of the band members are related.
The Infamous Stringdusters doesn’t have one bad song on it. However, one stands out from the rest. “Three Days in July” is a story about the Battle of Gettysburg as seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy who encounters a Rebel soldier. The song’s refrain, “I learned things I never knew”, juxtaposed with the strangely tender meeting between boy and soldier, displays both the horrors as well as the moments of compassion that occurred in the Civil War.
When the boys aren’t singing about battlefield encounters, they’re singing about love gone wrong. “You Can’t Handle the Truth” takes the line famous from A Few Good Men and directs it toward a suspicious significant other, while “The Way I See You Now” is a regretful retrospective about, you guessed it, a failed relationship and the one that got away: “Time makes us wise, time makes us fools / I never looked in your eyes, I looked past them somehow / I wish that I had seen you then / The way I see you now”.
The three instrumentals on the album let the mean pickin’ power of each band member shine, especially Andy Hall. Unfortunately, banjoist Chris Pandolfi is underused, even on “Glass Elevator”, the song he composed. Nevertheless, the sheer skill displayed on these instrumental tracks is proof that the Stringdusters can hang with the best bluegrass bands in the business.
While they are incredibly talented pickers, the Stringdusters haven’t completely matured as songwriters yet (though in a few years they’ll be churning out modern day classics), but they do have a knack for selecting songs. On The Infamous Stringdusters, the band enlists the lyrical prowess of Bad Livers’ Danny Barnes on “Get It While You Can”, another one of those food/sex songs that have managed to stay in vogue through the past two centuries. As with many of its predecessors, the food of love in “Get It While You Can” is biscuits and gravy. In the backwoods world of the Stringdusters, flour + bacon grease = aphrodisiac, and really, who can’t get behind that?
On the downside, producer Tim O’Brien—who knows something about mixing tradition and innovation himself—treads a fine line between showcasing the band’s talent and falling prey to overproduction. While the crystal clear sound is nice enough, I can’t help but feel that the record would be improved by incorporating some of the raw energy of the Stringdusters’ live shows. The clean cut, profanity-free nature of the Infamous Stringdusters makes them a band whose concerts you can take your grandma to. The diverse crowds at Stringdusters shows speak for themselves, and really, there isn’t a more enjoyable way to make sure you stay in the will than this. Don’t pass it up.