Barnstar!’s Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! is a bluegrass album with a home-spun sound that doesn’t ring false and that’s enough to carry it most of the time. If that sounds like an attempt to damn with faint praise, keep in mind that this is the rare spot of contemporary bluegrass music that never sounds cliché. Or contrived. Or, thank God, self-conscious and ironic. It carries a few of the ugliest markings of the genre – nobody’s going to award these guys awards for political sensitivity with lines like “Stupid girl / She was dressed like / She deserved everything that she got”, even knowing the narrative the context, and their cover of the Hold Steady‘s “Sequestered in Memphis” is so far removed from the original context provided by the rest of Stay Positive that it now walks a very strange (and oddly celebratory) line between macho braggadocio and police interrogation that feels icky – but it’s also marked with those strengths that can make any bluegrass album worth its roots a kind of portable festiva.
Credit some of that to a vocal ensemble that gives the band a wider range than some of their peers. Everyone in the band can sing and sing well and each brings a unique timbre and range that makes every shift in sound believable and easy. The band doesn’t stress to cover the major, sudden gap between lofty dirge and earthy ballad in “Six Foot Pine Box”, and it has no trouble moving between barn-raisers like “Stay With Me” or “Flaming Red” and the bluesier, boozier style of “Barnstable County” and “Trouble”. If they cock up the lyrics with an ugly bit of chauvinism from time to time and don’t seem to have too wide a range of themes – death, depression, sexual frustration, hill-billy posturing; ya know, all the stand-bys – they also apologize for it all with a playful lyrical style that’s really only rightly described as a hoot. Folksy it may be, but “Worn out and wholly / Wholly as Jesus / Me and my red shoes / Nothing could please us”, is maybe the most perfect slice of Americana Apple Pie cooked up in years; “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the hand that I’ve been dealt / It’s the deeper the hole, the closer to Hell”, may not change the face of 21st century lyricism but it’s pegged perfectly with a whisper and a suddenly vanished instrumental line that turns this bit of literalism into something stark and ugly.
Credit most of it, though, to some of the wildest fiddle work and banjo playing you’re liable to hear this year (now note the use of liable). There are obvious show stoppers, here, plenty of wild picking runs (“Flaming Red” is almost all flash-fire picking), bow-bending hashes on the fiddle and the viola and some breakneck changes in time signature and style that should get feet to tapping if not dancing. It’s a festive album, after all, powered by a band that’s so high on their talent, rapport and the kind of crass joy that comes with easy creation. But keep diligent for the quiet moments. Don’t dare to miss the ten-second interplay between fiddle and banjo in the middle bridge of “She Loves the Band”; compact and subtle, it’s all the tenser for it. Try not to speed right over “Darling” just because it’s a tad slower; the transition between violin-solo, banjo-solo and harmonized vocals is as deft a bit of arrangement as any.
At the same time it might be best not to expect to much. For all their ability to play it soft and in spite of their wide musical reach, the fact is that Barnstar! suffer from a lack of real emotional range. Whether they’re sending off a deceased friend, following a stalker around or grappling with the specter of depression, the boys in the band play every song like it’s a jaunt through a Saturday evening of bar-hopping and barn-dancing. There’s just too much boogie in their soul, it seems (or too much liquor in their livers), for them to approach anything in life as less than a cause for celebration. A welcome optimism at first, yes, but like the friend who never knows when to stop cracking wise or who follows every life event with drinks it can grow tiresome. There are subjects that demand darker shading and deeper introspection than Barnstar!’s effusive attitude allows them.
That said, the band might do best to just drop the pretense altogether and focus on doing what they do best, which is cutting a rug: few albums swing so confidently and with so few inhibitions as this one, after all. If sometimes it’s shaky, give it a pass; it’s certainly never boring and that alone makes it worth a look, a listen, and maybe a few more listens after that.