Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Gibson Brothers - Help My Brother

Rating: B

The Gibson Brothers have been one of the most successful acts of recent years in bluegrass circles; their last five albums have all hit #1 on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts.  Somehow I've missed them through the years, both live and on recording, but with my newfound affection for their mandolin player, Joe Walsh, I thought I should check them out.  Their newest offering Help My Brother seemed like a good place to start.

They've got a great sound.  The album is all songs, no instrumentals, and it really showcases the brother harmonies.  They use harmony as a weapon in many different ways - it's a sledgehammer in "I'll Love Nobody But You" and "Singing As We Rise," bringing out the power and joy in those tunes, but it's a scalpel in "Want Vs. Need" and closer "Safe Passage," just adding a little emotional punch when the song needs it.  The brothers have different voices that complement each other; Leigh has the cleaner voice and Eric has a bluegrassier high twang.  The band is built around the vocals.  Leigh's banjo, Walsh's mandolin, and Clayton Campbell's fiddle fill in the holes, bassist Mike Barber adds percussive slaps on "Walking West To Memphis," but ultimately the players accentuate the tune.  The album is not about instrumental showmanship; it's about the songs. 

Well, how about the songs?  It's about half covers and half originals.  They do a good job mixing up the pace; opener "Help My Brother" and "I'll Love Nobody But You" are barn-burners, while "Talk To Me" and "Frozen In Time" are slower.  The songwriting is a bit of a mixed bag - the first few times I heard "Help My Brother" and "Dixie" I cringed at some of the lyrics ("I've been more selfish than I dog with a bone").  But after a few listens the melodies stuck in my head anyway, and the earnestness the Gibson Brothers show really sells their tunes.  "Want Vs. Need" is a great example; in lesser hands the simple moral might be considered melodramatic and saccharine, but the band really sells it with their earnestness.

The end of the album is really strong, with "One-Car Funeral" and "Safe Passage."  Both are originals; "One-Car Funeral" is a stomping lament of a wasted life that has a Carter Family honesty, while "Safe Passage" is a modal journey through the generations that is both epic and personal.  Leigh Gibson describes his family's journey from Scotland through generations of farmers to the present day, and he cleverly highlights what's the same and what's different between the generation.  It's simultaneously epic and subtle; it's really like almost nothing else.  I wish they had captured that brilliance more consistently on Help My Brother, but it's still a good album and a fun listen.

Gibson Brothers official site

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