[19 November 2008]
Crooked Still’s recent lineup changes caused quite a stir in the alt-bluegrass world. (It’s not a big world, admittedly, but it is a vocal one.) Their first two albums (2004’s Hop High and 2006’s Shaken By A Low Sound) drew much of their appeal from the unique instrumentation. Gregory Lizt’s banjo danced around the dual-attack of Rushad Eggleston’s cello and Corey DiMario’s double bass. And above it all, of course, was Aoife O’Donovan’s breathy voice, at once powerful and light, like a sledgehammer wrapped in feathers.
The results were often extraordinary, and brought the band much acclaim. No less than the Boston Globe called them “the most important folk group to emerge from Boston since the ‘60s”. And so it came as a bit of a surprise when the band announced Eggleston’s departure late last year. Eggleston’s manic style was a key component of the band’s success, and when it came out that he being replaced not only with a new cellist but also with a fiddler, many (well, some) worried that, by moving to a more traditional lineup, Crooked Still was going to lose what had made them so appealing in the first place.
It’s hard, then, to not read a lot into the fiddle solo at the two-minute mark of “Undone in Sorrow”, the opening track of Still Crooked. (That title, incidentally, is probably the worst thing about the album.) The song starts quietly, just the banjo and O’Donovan’s vocals. “Over yonder in the graveyard / where the wildflowers grow / Oh, there they laid my own true lover / She’s gone from me, forevermore”, she sings, and then the other instruments enter, the bass and cello at the fore and the fiddle barely noticeable in the back. After the third verse the other instruments step back and Tristan Clarridge, the new cellist, takes a solo. And it’s a good solo, too; not quite Eggleston-caliber, but soulful.
And then Brittany Haas, the other newcomer, breaks into an absolutely breathtaking solo. It’s everything a fiddle solo should be: a high, keening wail, plaintive and beautiful. It’s also a declaration by the band. We’re not trying to do what we’ve always done, they’re saying. This one’s going to be different.
On a couple of songs, the band even manages to live up to the promise of “Undone in Sorrow”. Don’t get me wrong: the album has its fair share of duds, and even the best of what follows fails to match the beauty of the title track. But some of it comes pretty close.
Case in point: “Low Down and Dirty”, the fifth track and one of only two original songs on the disc. Crooked Still has always had a fondness for murder ballads (see: “Darling Corey”, “Little Sadie”, “Flora”) and “Low Down” holds with the best of them. O’Donovan’s lyrics manage to at once emulate and subvert the traditions she’s working with. Although the lyrics are almost self-consciously folksy (“You’ll die beneath the leaves tonight a-fallin’ / and the devil will stand by / his smile bright / his pitchfork high”), here it’s the woman doing the avenging. Along with the other original, “Oh Agamemnon”, this song suggests that Crooked Still should consider writing more of their material in the future.
The other highlight of the album comes with the one-two punch of “Did You Sleep Well?” and “Poor Ellen Smith”. The former was written by someone named Nathan Taylor, who I have never heard of and am having a tough time finding information about. But the song is nevertheless fantastically written and the arrangement is beautiful. And “Ellen Smith” ends in a mesmerizing coda in which the fiddles of Haas and guest Ruth Ungar intertwine and dance.
The album’s big problem, though, is one of energy. On no track here does the band let go and just play. Instead, the album wanders from slow, atmospheric lullabye to tense midtempo ballad and back again, and while none of the results are necessarily bad, they do suffer in comparison to one another. “Captain, Captain”, which is in itself quite beautiful, would be more impressive if it wasn’t so similar to “Undone in Sorrow”. Other tracks, like “Tell Her To Come Back Home” or “Florence” come and go with little impact at all. It’s possible that the band has more energy live than they do in their recordings, and they wouldn’t be the first bluegrass band to have trouble replicating their stage presence in the studio. I haven’t seen them live, so I can’t say for sure. But they only have to look to their peers like Old Crow Medicine Show or the Mammals to see how high-energy songs can be done in a studio setting.
So the questions, I suppose, are: did the lineup changes alter the band’s sound? And if so, was it for better or for worse? And the answers I have are yes and both. There’s no doubt that Eggleston was missed, and this is a very different album than Hop High or Shaken… But this is a band that is pushing themselves, trying new tactics, seeing what works and what doesn’t. I’ll take the unpredictability of experimentation over the consistency of complacency any day.