Rating: B-Loosely-organized thoughts while listening to The Boxcars' self-titled debut:
The album kicks off with "December 13th," which is its high point - an atmospheric tune that touches on a lot of the great folk music themes - murder, betrayal, revenge, guilt, and memory. The verses are driven by Ron Stewart's banjo, giving the tune an urgency you don't typically get in murder ballads. The song has a real darkness and dramatic flair.
Some of the other tunes don't fare as well. "In God's Hands" is slow, plodding, and overly sentimental and mawkish. "Hurtin' Inside" is similarly sappy. Other than "December 13th," the best moments are uptempo songs keyed by Stewart's banjo: "You Can Take Your Time," "Log Cabin In the Lane," and closer "Take Me On the Midnight Train" have an energy that isn't always there in this album.
One of the things that drew me to pick up this album is the presence of Adam Steffey, who I was familiar with from Mountain Heart and who recently one his fifth IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year award. I'm a sucker for great mandolin and Steffey delivers it, whether a bluesy break on "Old Henry Hill" or a more traditional blistering bluegrass solo on instrumental tune "Jump the Track." He always gets a clean sound, and is a master of subtlely shading the tone and pace to sad, bouncy, woody, or whatever he needs. A fine example is in "Never Played the Opry" - another mandolinist probably would have used a lot of tremolo on this slow number, but Steffey's staccato notes seem to mimic teardrops and fit perfectly with the tune. Steffey also has one of the most distinctive singing voices in bluegrass, a very deep baritone he puts to good use in "The Hard Way."
Overall, this is a good album with some definite high points and some low points. It's not breaking any new ground. It sounds great, very clean, but I wish there was a little more edge to it.
Note: Per the Boxcars website, they're going to be playing at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, which is the closest festival to me here in Boston. They haven't announced the full Joe Val lineup, but I'll update the blog if I they do or if I notice any other bands that are schedule to play.
Buy it from Amazon:
The Boxcars (only $6.99 right now)
The Boxcars official site