Well-played not-quite-bluegrass gets the toes tapping.
Nora Jane Struthers released her self-titled debut last year, and it was an underwhelming affair, in large part because her voice just wasn’t up to the task of bearing the weight of an entire album, especially with minimal accompaniment (much of the record was her alone with an acoustic guitar). As one-fifth of Bearfoot, though, Struthers seems to have found her comfort zone. She is front and center for most of the songs, but she has plenty of support to back her up, both vocal and instrumental. She's part of a team here, and that seems to suit her just fine.
Bandmate and guitarist Todd Grebe shares songwriting and vocal duties on a pair of tracks, and although Struthers does the rest of the lead vocals, she gets capable support from PJ George on bass, banjo and percussion, Angela Oudean on fiddle, and Jason Norris on mandolin and violin (I'm not sure of the difference between a violin and a fiddle, but never mind). Oudean and George contribute harmony vocals, too. The band share a comfortable groove, loose without being too loose, tight without being uptight.
The songs run the expected country gamut from nostaligia for the good ol' days (opener "Tell Me a Story") to rustic hilarity ("Kill the Rooster", "Mr Moonshine) to lonesome heartache ("When You’re Away"). There are uptempo numbers and slower tunes, all of them well served by the band's capable playing and full-throated arrangements. "Tell Me a Story" starts soft but soon builds upon layers of staccato rhythms. "Feel Free" is a gentle number that evokes wistfulness—for what, exactly, is never entirely clear. It hardly matters, though. When Struthers sings, "We all need a place to feel free," it's hardly a sentiment that can be argued with.
"When You’re Away" offers a stuttering rhythm and Struthers at her most sultry, channeling a sexy housewife who aims to seduce her husband every evening after finishing the chores. "Billy" is another strong performance, an a cappella tune with contributions from all five musicians and impeccable vocal harmonies. It's pretty great, but then, I'm a sucker for a cappella tunes. The two songs sung by Todd Grebe, "Midnight in Montana" and "Mr Moonshine," sound more straight-up country, but maybe that's just Grebe's twang kicking in.
The news isn't entirely good. Some songs fall flat, especially when the band is trying a little too hard to evoke that downhome aw-shucks hilarity. "Come Get Your Lonesome" is a song that makes about as much sense as its title; it tries for wink-nudge naughtiness but just comes off as dumb. Note to Struthers: when you work so hard to establish a persona of girl-next-door sweetness, it's difficult to throw it over for the sake of a single tune. "Kill the Rooster" is unsuccessful as well. Maybe it's me, but a song about killing a rooster? Really? Okay, I get it that it's not really a rooster that needs killing, but… still.
Apart from such missteps, this is a lively and inventive record, from a sort-of-bluegrass band that doesn’t quite play bluegrass, or a country band that undermines the slickness of Nashville country while eschewing the self-conscious irony of much alt-country. Bearfoot is simply a group of talented musicians playing music that they genuinely love. It shows.