The Infamous Stringdusters are a bluegrass band who take traditional bluegrass and old-timey music and use it as a launching pad to explore other, more improvisational, free-flowing forms. It’s a bit much to tag it as “bluejazz,” but the monicker does convey some sense of the band’s more experiemental leanings. On the flip side, though, there is plenty of familiar-sounding fare to be had, with rock-solid 4/4 beats, heart-tugging warbling and fingerpicking in plenty. In brief, this is a band that doesn’t want to get stuck in a rut, but also acknowledges the value of basic musicianship and traditional swagger and skill.
Album opener “Don’t Mean Nothin'” is perhaps the most traditional one here, and it immediately establishes that a.) the musicians are for real, b.) the singer has that countrified “just folks” style down pat, and c.) these people can write a song. Just about the time the toe-tapping rhythm is done blasting from your speakers, the band shifts gears—the first of many such shifts—into the spiky fiddle and pulsing undercurrent of “Rockets”. This is a non-bluegrass song played with bluegrass instruments, and an early indication that this band has more on its mind than recreating that high lonesome sound.
Diversity for diversty’s sake is no great virtue, however; the songs still have to be enjoyable. The band suffers from mixed results in this regard. Some, like the funky and good-natured “Fire”, find the balance between unexpected and gratifying, and manage to expand the sonic range of what might be considered bluegrass without subverting it entirely.
Other songs are less successful. “Like I Do” goes too far in the direction of jazzy improvisation, and winds up a somewhat muddled mess, while simultaneously containing one of the most annoying choruses ever recorded. This is not a rational response; I understand that. “Heady Festy” also tries for some kind of languid moodiness, but succeeds only in being monotonous. Elsewhere, the band indulges itself with cover versions of the Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone” (successful) and the Police’s “Walking on the Moon” (considerably less so).
Ultimately, a band lives or dies on the strength of its musicianship, and there is no dearth of that here. Jeremy Garrett’s fiddle and Chris Pandolfi’s banjo provide plenty of lively fire atop a rock-solid rhythm section of drums, bass and guitar. Vocal duties are split among various musicians (not credited for particular songs), with some voice raspier and more satisfying than others.
One very nice bonus to the deluxe edition of Silver Sky is the inclusion of a second disc, the 2011 release We’ll Do it Live, a fine live album whose 13 tracks include only one repeat from the studio album (a lively version of “The Hitchhiker”, which contains a considerably expanded middle improv section). This amounts to a second album for the price of one, a generous gift from the band and a boon to new fans. Other highlights include the stomping “Fork in the Road” and the epic “Well, Well”.
Listeners looking to see what the future of bluegrass might sound like are encouraged to give the band a spin. Traditionalists, however, are likely to be horrified—or at least confused—by some of the proceedings. You have been warned.