Greensky Bluegrass: Shouted, Written Down and Quoted
Greensky Bluegrass' strong new album sticks close enough to bluegrass trappings to satisfy traditionalists while being adventurous enough to attract both jamgrass and progressive fans. That's an achievement in and of itself.
Shouted, Written Down and Quoted is an album lyrically concerned with guilt, regret, and restlessness. Greensky Bluegrass tackle these themes with a lot of musical energy, but they generally avoid the typical bluegrass tactics. That is to say, all of the downbeat lyrics aren’t shoved into the record’s slow ballads or ironically matched to upbeat major key picking workouts, although those types of songs are definitely present here. But the band has been around since the turn of the century and that experience gives them the confidence to embrace darker themes in their music while remaining resolutely a bluegrass act.
The album takes its time building up to the stylistic detours. “Miss September” opens the record on a relatively upbeat note as mandolinist Paul Hoffman sings about leaving town? A girlfriend? Both? He acknowledges, “I think I’m gonna miss September / But I’m leaving either way.” This is all done over a jaunty mandolin and dobro riff that seems to support Hoffman’s lyrical decision to leave. “Past My Prime” conflates restlessness and regrets, as he’s apparently left too late. “I’m out way past my prime / Looking for reasons I didn’t get my time.” Hoffman can’t seem to decide whether it’s good that he’s finally out on the road or awful that he waited for so long and missed so many chances. This song is more wistful, as the band lets their notes linger, particularly in the verses, despite it being relatively uptempo. They also electrify the dobro for a solo, which gives the song more of a rock feel despite the basic bluegrass trappings.
“While Waiting” is the record’s first ballad, a beautiful, sparsely arranged song that once again tackles restlessness. Hoffman sings about life on the road through the lens of finally leaving a small town. The excellent couplet, “I’ve got a lot of reservations, and I’m totally unsure / I’d just rather not not know anymore,” sums up the feeling behind the song. This is followed by the speedy “Run or Die”, a minor key song with a few different solo breaks, including a mid-song interlude where Hoffman and dobro player Michael Arlen Bont trade mysterious, decaying licks.
Guitarist Dave Bruzza releases the tension with “Room Without a Roof”, his first song on the album. This is an easygoing folk song anchored by Bruzza’s rich baritone voice. It’s still marked, however, by a brief minor key jam that is moody and atmospheric before the band slides back into the song’s main major key groove. It’s back to regrets and wistfulness with the incisive “Merely Avoiding”, with its chorus, “These answers don’t elude me / I’m merely avoiding / What I’ve feared all along that they could be.” It’s an excellent crumbling relationship song that leads into “Living Over”, Shouted, Written Down, and Quoted’s climax.
“Living Over” is a seven-minute jam that earns every minute of its running time. It opens with a hell of a catchy dobro riff and a great vocal melody. The song takes off into the jam with the mandolin and dobro trading short solos before launching into an extended mandolin excursion which stretches and soars and gives way to a brighter, more active dobro feature. This could be tiresome, but Hoffman and Bont are compelling players and the rest of the band keeps a lively groove going to support the solos.
From there the album closes out with another handful of interesting songs. “More of Me” embraces the darkness in a melancholy relationship ballad driven by a minor key arpeggiated guitar riff and a strong, sturdy bassline. “Fixin’ to Ruin” may be the most traditional bluegrass song on the album with its active banjo picking, harmony vocals, and sardonic lyrics about self-destructing a relationship. Bruzza returns to close out the album with “Take Cover”, an upbeat song about an impending storm, both in the weather and with a woman.
Greensky are members of the jamgrass subgenre where they tend to stretch songs out in live performances. But they keep those tendencies mostly under wraps on Shouted, Written Down and Quoted and let the songwriting remain the star of the show. The solos are mostly concise and well-matched to the songs, and “Living Over” is focused enough to justify its seven minutes. The band does an excellent job of toeing several different lines on the album. They stick close enough to the trappings of bluegrass to satisfy traditionalists while being adventurous enough to attract both their jam-oriented fans and the progressive audience that prefers the Punch Brothers or the late, lamented Cadillac Sky. There’s really something here to appeal to most anyone that enjoys bluegrass, and that is an achievement in and of itself.