Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Bluegrass Album

Rating: B+

Bluegrass is a funny genre in a lot of ways. It would seem beyond egotistical if a rock 'n roll band decided to name itself "The Rock 'N Roll Band" and release an album called "The Rock 'N Roll Album." But we ascribe no such hubris the quintet that comprises The Bluegrass Album Band. Maybe that's because the name is largely an accident (the group was originally supposed to be a backing band for a Tony Rice album); it's similar to how The Band got their moniker. Maybe it's because the name seems a bit tongue in cheek. Or maybe it's because no one could begrudge this group of all-stars - legendary flatpicker Rice, five-string master J.D. Crowe, mandolin and singing virtuoso Doyle Lawson, ex-Bluegrass Boy fiddler Bobby Hicks, and bassist Todd Phillips, an original member of David Grisman's band - calling themselves whatever they wanted.

At The Festy, Infamous Stringduster Jesse Cobb gave a mandolin workshop, and he was asked about playing rhythm mandolin. He said, "Go out and buy The Bluegrass Album and listen to the rhythm played by Todd Phillips and Doyle Lawson." It's hard to say Phillips and Lawson are a tighter rhythm section than, say, Bill Monroe and Howard Watts, but it's indicative of not just the excellence this group has, but the kind of excellence - it's a tight professionalism. This is a band's band, and they get the little things right, not just the breaks and the leads, but the rhythm, the harmonies, and the fills.

There aren't any originals on here, but it's a terrific selection of covers. Bill Monroe is present here extensively, from racehorse classic "Molly and Tenbrooks" to finale "River of Death." Flatt and Scruggs are also well-represented, with opener "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" and two other Flatt-penned tunes. There's a definite bias towards the up-tempo numbers; only a mid-album interlude with waltz "I Believe In You Darling" and slower gospel number "Model Church" lowers the BPM. There are several songs lyrically on the "I'm heartbroken theme" - "I Believe in You Darling," "Chalk Up Another One," and Monroe's classic "Toy Heart" followed immediately by the Osborne Brothers' "Pain My Heart" in a curious bit of album sequencing.

The sequencing is maybe the funniest thing about the album; the two slowest tunes are back-to-back, two songs with "heart" in the name are back-to-back, it's almost half Monroe covers - it feels like they just played a bunch of songs together and then just took a random chunk of 11 and threw it on an album. The other complaint is that the biggest strength is it's greatest weakness - it's so tight it feels about contrived. J.D. Crowe's banjo sounds remarkably like Earl Scruggs', Doyle Lawson's mandolin solos are Monroe-esque, and most bizarrely Tony Rice, one of the greatest flatpickers of all time, primarily confines himself to just rhythm guitar.

Those are nitpicks, though; you need this album in your collection. If you're not a bluegrass fan, this is a fine introduction to the form. If you are a bluegrass fan, you need to see why one band called itself "The Bluegrass Album Band" - and why that wasn't silly at all.

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