[19 July 2010]
Cadillac Sky’s third album finds them in a difficult position that many young bluegrass bands encounter. They are trying to balance more traditional-style songs while simultaneously reaching out for a more expansive sound. Letters in the Deep was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, not exactly a go-to guy for bluegrass music, although the Black Keys’ penchant for blues traditionalism is at least theoretically in similar territory. Still, Auerbach had the band record the album as a live ensemble, emulating old time bluegrass recordings. But primary songwriters Bryan Simpson and David Mayfield have more on their minds than aping the bluegrass acts of old.
This may be evident from the first track, “Trapped Under the Ice”. Whether the title was intentionally chosen to evoke Metallica is unknown, but the song itself is a mid-tempo minor-key lope with lyrics like “I am a monkey in a cage / I am a prisoner of your love” and a furious distorted electric guitar solo in the final 20 seconds. The next track, “3rd Degree”, goes even darker, as Simpson tells the tale of a man coming home late and being interrogated by his wife. Although the man hasn’t done anything wrong, his wife’s angry, paranoid questioning eventually leads him to falsely confess, which makes things even worse. Chugging guitar and banjo set the mood, and Ross Holmes’ swirling violin adds an air of frantic desperation to Simpson’s already on-edge vocal delivery. After this opening one-two punch, the band goes with the more traditional love ballad “Human Cannonball” and follows it with the piano-heavy “Trash Bag” and the instrumental interlude “Lee of the Stone: East”.
Letters in the Deep has three of these “Lee of the Stone” tracks and two more short instrumentals. All of them are engaging, but even the longest only lasts 90 seconds. And it’s the band’s other three members, banjo player Matt Menefee, bassist Andrew Moritz, and Ross Holmes, who contribute these songs. It would be nice to hear fully fleshed-out, longer versions of these instrumentals, but even as brief interludes they break up the album nicely. Still, Simpson and Mayfield have no problem shouldering the songwriting load. The duo have plenty of good ideas for the band on this album, both musically and lyrically.
“Ballad of Restored Confidence” is an appropriately-named post-break-up song with a cheery, easygoing vibe and a great violin solo from Holmes. “Hypocrite” is sparsely arranged and lets Moritz’s bass carry the song under the layered vocal harmonies. When the trio of mandolin, guitar, and banjo (plus some nicely-placed waterphone effects from Auerbach) take over mid-song using short notes and strange harmonics, the effect is genuinely eerie. The speedy “Bathsheeba” turns the standard uptempo bluegrass jam on its head. Instead of quick-fingered banjo picking driving the song, the band plays down-stroked chords in unison while Simpson sings about the dealing with the titular crazy girl, “It might be me / But it’s probably you.” It’s probably the closest a bluegrass outfit can get to punk rock.
With all the interesting stylistic experiments going on during Letters in the Deep, some of the more typical bluegrass tunes get a bit lost in the shuffle. They tend to be the more plaintive love songs that are decently written but not as memorable. Cadillac Sky may not gain fans among bluegrass traditionalists with this album, but the same boundary-pushing spirit that turns off the traditionalists will likely open the band up to a wider, more eclectic audience. They’ve put together a very strong record here with no true weak spots.