[18 January 2009]
The Lonesome River Band have ostensibly been together since the mid-‘80s, but they’ve gone through so many lineups that even longtime fans may not recognize the guys on the front cover. But even as musicians have cycled through, the elements that define the band’s sound—outstanding musicianship, vocal harmonies, and unabashedly sentimental lyrics—have stayed the same.
No Turning Back, then, is a solid but unsurprising album. Since 1990, the anchor of the Lonesome River Band has been Sammy Shelor’s banjo picking, and his prodigious talent is evident throughout, especially on uptempo tracks like “Long Way From Here” and the driving opener, “Them Blues”. Shelor trades off on the melody lines with Mike Hartgrove’s fiddle and Andy Ball’s mandolin, but the rhythm section really deserves mention here—Brandon Rickman’s guitar and Mike Anglin’s bass are what keep the songs firmly on track. Rickman also provides most of the lead vocals, and while his voice is a little more country than bluegrass, the dissonant harmonies (courtesy, I think, of Ball) quickly dispel any thoughts of Alan Jackson.
The band certainly aren’t afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Many of the songs here would seem laughable were they not delivered with such complete sincerity. “Dime Store Rings” starts as a tale of young love, but then follows the couple through the different stages of their life—marriage, parenting, retirement, and finally death. “They’ve got a five-year plan towards a little piece of land and the start to a pretty good life / A love that’s bigger than the West Texas sky,” Rickman sings, and the song is somehow strengthened by how ordinary the story is. “Wires and Wood”, one of the album’s best tracks, is (I can’t quite believe I’m writing this) a love song to a guitar. “Wish I had her back again / I never had a better friend / Sometimes she comes to me in dreams, and all night long we play and sing.” And somehow, they pull it off.
In the end, though, The Lonesome River Band may be a little too talented for their own good. The music here throughout is so tight, so utterly controlled, that it becomes a little bland. There’s no sense of danger, no sense that one of them might hit even a single wrong note. For whatever reason, this feeling worsens as the disc wears on, and so the first half of the disc—which is nearly flawless—far outshines the second. (At 14 tracks, the album is also far too long.) The band briefly regains momentum with the second-to-last song, the instrumental “Struttin’ to Ferrum”, where they relax ever-so-slightly to show off their soloing skills.
But they blow that momentum with the last song, “Flowers”, which is truly awful, far and away the worst song on the album. Musically, the song is uninspiring: the fiddle and banjo are almost completely abandoned, replaced by the sort of tinkling piano favored by the people who record GarageBand loops. The lyrics tell the story of a recovering alcoholic who, a year or so in the past, forced his wife to get in the car with him and then drunkenly crashed the car. “And I’d take your place in this field of stone if I only had the power / Look what it took for me to finally bring you flowers,” the protagonist says, and from the tone of the music, it’s clear we’re supposed to sympathize for the poor guy. I couldn’t do it, though. In my view, kicking your alcoholism ceases to be redemptive when you have to kill your wife to do it. So the song just comes off as being in extremely poor taste.
It’s unfortunate that No Turning Back ends in such an uninspiring manner, especially since the musicians are so accomplished. But knowing the Lonesome River Band, I’d expect them to be back with another disc in a year or two. I just hope that next time around their endgame is a little better.