A variety of genres come together in Generation Nation. But I should mention one unfortunate genre addition that you, PopMatters readers, aren't likely to appreciate…
No, these aren't the filing categories at your local record store; they are the genres brought together within Generation Nation. But I should mention one unfortunate genre addition that you, PopMatters readers, aren't likely to appreciate: (whispers) New Age …
Before we drift into the New Age realm of airy hyperconsciousness, let's rewind: Darol Anger is an accomplished fiddler and mandolinist who spent time in David Grisman's Quintet and was a founding member of the Turtle Island String Quartet. Though Anger's solo projects have never gained the prominence of these ensembles, he's a welcome addition to spontaneous bluegrass festival jams, and his classically-oriented jazz forays with the like-minded Mike Marshall (the Duo, Psychograss) are consistently enjoyable.
For Generation Nation, Anger has assembled a "Republic of Strings" that includes talent from a variety of age categories, including youngsters Brittany Haas, Rushad Eggleston, and Tristan Clarridge -- musicians whose blips are increasingly prominent on the New Acoustic Music radar. Clarridge was the youngest person to win the National Fiddle Championship (he went on to win it two more times), and Eggleston is a feature performer with roots band, Crooked Still. His cello offers a welcome mid-range fullness to several compositions here. Guitarist Scott Nygaard, a frequent Anger collaborator, also lends his diverse talents to the majority of these tracks.
Opener "When You Go (Djulaikta Waltz)" was written by Nygaard, and the song's five-and-a-half minutes evoke a pastoral pleasantness, where a confluence of strings creates peaks, valleys, and a textured simplicity. The album then takes a series of successful risks. "The Ramblin' Barber" combines an Ornette Coleman composition with a traditional fiddle tune, resulting in a toe-tapper with rich interplay that swirls into an imploding crescendo. A soul-blues-bluegrass interpretation of the Queen of Soul's "Chain of Fools" works surprisingly well ... the track is spaciously elegant and provides ample room for Chris Webster's dark reading.
However, the album largely fails on its other vocal tracks, and when it veers too closely towards the polished sheen of New Age music. Anger produced, recorded, and mixed the album, and, unfortunately, his technique often reminds us that he's spent time on the Windham Hill roster. "Father Adieu" is sung by a member of the Anonymous 4, an early music a capaella group, who overly polish the rough-hewn old-time rendition recorded by E.C. Ball. That's not Alison Krauss sweetly singing "In the Basement", though newcomer Aoife O'Donovan offers her best impersonation. An upbeat cover of Buffalo Springfield's "Bluebird" features an expressive vocal, but the song literally falls apart halfway through, only to be half-heartedly plucked back to life in the final minute. "You Noticed Too" is a Turtle Island String Quartet holdover that, though abundantly soothing, never offers anything extraordinary.
Thankfully, there is something extraordinary about album highlight "Rain Dance," a live recorded track which allows the Republic of Strings to shine sans vocals and Anger's studio polish. It's a dazzling hybrid of jazz and bluegrass, and calls to the fore the best elements of this album: rhythmic propulsion, creative arrangements, and jaw-dropping dynamic interplay. These qualities bring attention to the multiple similarities between Generation Nation and the vastly underappreciated Skip, Hop & Wobble by Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, and Russ Barenberg. Whereas that album was both grounded and buoyant, a seminal release in the 'New Acoustic Music' category, I'd unfortunately file half of Generation Nation's twelve tracks within the 'New Age Acoustic' nomenclature.