Album Release Date/Producer? – January 13th, 2017 / Billy Hume along with the band themselves
Genre? – Contemporary Bluegrass, Country, Folk
Opinion On The Act’s Discography Overall? – After sampling their earlier albums prior to listening this along with fully listening to their last release, 2016’s Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish I had found them sooner. They are a great band, and I like their sound a lot. If there are Country acts out there who are truly “evolving” the genre with their work, The Infamous Stringdusters are doing the exact same thing for Bluegrass. As such, this was probably my most anticipated album of 2017 at the time that I wrote this.
Where Might Other People Know This Act From? – Their last album, 2016’s Ladies and Gentlemen featured a ton of artists such as Lee Ann Womack, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Aoife O’ Donovan, Sarah Jarosz, and many more, so if you were fans of any of those artists you might have checked them out before. Otherwise, they’ve been at it for almost a decade now so anyone who is a fan of Bluegrass most likely has heard of them.
The High Points/Praiseworthy Elements Of The Album? – Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for artists that incorporate some sort of theme into their project, and that’s what the band does here. The title track, “Gravity” uses the title as a metaphor for describing something that has bogged two lovers down only for them to overcome them, in other words make their love last. It’s not love that they’re exploring here, but rather that sense of being bogged down or feeling shackled to the past and not being able to move forward.
It starts with “Freedom” which more or less states the main theme of this album only to explore this theme in greater detail later on. “Maxwell” showcases a character who’s lived a cold, isolated life. His mother died when he was little and his father abandoned him, leaving him to feel obligated to shun the world around him, in other words letting that grief and loneliness drag him down. One thing I do like about a lot of the songs that deal with this main theme is that somehow, the heroes always manage to be alright in the end. Some may say it’s corny but when most of these are pure story songs anyway, I’m more entranced then I am disappointed. Our anti-hero Maxwell learns that to shut your heart off from the rest of the world isn’t the way to live life, and that’s a lesson well learned.
Really though, in terms of telling stories that sketch some absolutely beautiful pictures in the listener’s mind, the Infamous Stringdusters are doing a better job at it than some Country musicians today (a genre that’s built on stories). The best example of this may be “1901: A Canyon Odyssey” where these two men are embarking on a quest to bring water to the Uncompahgre Valley that ends up being more dangerous than they thought. Sure, the tone is a little brighter than something like this song probably needs, but again, you know the characters are going to be alright – it’s more about the adventure and overcoming those obstacles rather than letting them shackle you down, meaning to reverse those laws of gravity so to speak.
Of course, that’s just lyrics and themes, and while I’d argue they’re the most essential element of this project, the instrumentation and production is absolutely gorgeous as well. Sure, I could tell you that the fiddle, mandolin, banjo and dobro all sound great, but what does that really accomplish? Actually, I think it’s the little details on this album that make it stand out. From the more liquid tones of the title track combined with the crescendo leading to the sped up chorus along with the more bluesy touches on the album highlight, “This Ol’ Building”, there’s a lot here to really make this album go over the edge in terms of greatness. Of course, if we’re going to talk about great instrumental moments we have to talk about my favorite song, “Black Elk”, which lyrically and sonically is an absolutely contender for being one of my favorite songs of the year. The solo that comes through right before that final verse is literally something that gave me chills when I heard it. Aside from that, I also really enjoyed the harmonies that shine through on “Let Me Know” along with the more minor tones of “Freedom” as well. Again, in terms of lush, beautiful lyricism, this album excels, and the playing that accompanies it is damn great to boot.
The Low Points/Nitpicks Of The Album? – Now, part of the problem you get with albums like this that are trying to speak to a larger theme is that they tend to have songs that don’t really need to be here. They’re fine, but they also hammer on the main point a little too much and don’t add anything of value. When you get that sort of problem, that leads to another one – the length.
At thirteen tracks clocking in at fifty-four minutes, this album does drag on long, and really, that’s it’s biggest problem, so while it’s unfortunate, it’s also not an absolutely huge deal all things considered. However, there are definitely songs that just don’t need to be here, and again it’s not because they’re bad, they just don’t serve their purpose as well as other songs that share similar thematical content.
Songs like “I Run To You”, and “Vertigo” serve to illustrate this example, and at thirteen tracks, we really didn’t need an instrumental number in “Sirens”. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t really fit the album or need to be here.
“A Hard Life Makes A Good Song” states the obvious by telling how quite literally having a tough upbringing can lead to some more interesting stories down the road. Aside from stating the obvious however, we also explore that same theme on songs like “Maxwell” and “Black Elk” that tell stories within, making them more memorable as a result. Again, you if you trim off just a couple songs here, this could have been a truly excellent record, probably one of my favorites of the year.
Closing Thoughts? – However, I do think that this is an incredibly strong record as it is. The Infamous Stringdusters may not be breaking down barriers like so many people want them to, but they are crunching down on their own sound, and I’d argue that did them a lot of favors on their latest album. Again, the stories are rich and vibrant, the grooves are especially potent, and as a whole it’s just an incredibly enjoyable listen. We may have launched too late last year to cover their 2016 release, but I’m glad we were around to cover this new release because it’s worth all of your time.
Who Might Enjoy This Album? – Definitely fans of Bluegrass, but even fans of Country will probably find a lot to love here as well, especially on the more outright country track, “Back Home”.
Any Albums That This Reminds You Of? – Honestly? Other Infamous Stringdusters albums, and that’s a good thing.
Best Song(s)? – Definitely “Black Elk”, that song is awesome. Although there are honestly a lot of standouts here, “Gravity”, “Maxwell”, “This Ol’ Building”, “1901: A Canyon Odyssey”, and “Let Me Know”
Worst (Or Weakest) Song(s)? – I’d probably designate “A Hard Life Makes A Good Song” for just stating the obvious as well as being done way better in the form of other songs here.