Acoustics: Railroad Earth jams on live CD |

Acoustics: Railroad Earth jams on live CD

Stewart Oksenhorn
Todd Sheaffer of Railroad Earth, pictured at the Wheeler Opera House Tuesday night. The New Jersey band has released its first live album, "Elko." (Stewart Oksenhorn photo)

Oh, the many, many things you can do with strings.Railroad Earth, “Elko”recorded by Mike Partridgeand Johnny Grubb (Sugar Hill)After three studio albums made notable by the songs and singing of frontman Todd Sheaffer, New Jersey acoustic sextet Railroad Earth releases its first live CD, “Elko.”

It is a departure from the reasonably tight studio efforts, with songs being jammed out to 16 minutes (and 15 minutes, twice; 14 minutes, 12 minutes, etc.). “Elko” reveals that Railroad Earth is not a great jamming band; the soloists don’t have that kind of firepower. But as an all-acoustic band – plus drummer Carey Harmon – they have a distinctive sound, and all those minutes of making instrumental music between the songs are generally pleasant and usually more than that: On “Seven Story Mountain,” the band shows an imaginative way with Irish ideas.The best part about Railroad Earth remains Sheaffer’s songs, and the best part about “Elko” is how fine those songs sound in the live context. The string sounds come alive, sharp and crisp, giving an energy to the album. Such previously released songs as “Bird in the House” and “Mighty River” have already made Sheaffer’s vision of a mythical America landscape notable in song-writing circles. But Sheaffer adds at least one more great tune to the repertoire here. The title track “Elko,” a Western-set, down-and-out panorama about gambling and boozing, features a catchy hook from fiddler Tim Carbone, and some of Sheaffer’s most emphatic lyrics. The song was the highlight of Railroad Earth’s concert this week at the Wheeler Opera House. For those who missed it, “Elko” is an almost acceptable substitute.Bla Fleck & the Flecktones, “The Hidden Land”produced by Fleck (Columbia)On first listen, I was mildly disappointed with “The Hidden Land,” the first recording by Bla Fleck & the Flecktones since their ambitious three-CD set “Little Worlds” of 2003. In the interim, banjoist Fleck spent time in Africa, studying the roots of the banjo, and I thought “The Hidden Land” would reflect a sharp turn for the four-piece Flecktones. It doesn’t.But “The Hidden Land,” on closer inspection, does reveal the Flecktones at their most focused. Unlike “Little Worlds” and many of the band’s previous efforts, “The Hidden Land” is pared down to the quartet proper: bassist Victor Wooten, electronic percussionist Future Man, saxophonist Jeff Coffin and Fleck. And while there are no obvious new influences that might have stemmed from Fleck’s adventures in Africa, there are more subtle steps forward from the usual mix of funk and fusion.

“Chennai (Indian 5/4)” finds the Flecktones in deep exploration, quietly mining primal, tribal rhythms, with Coffin adding Eastern-derived lines over the beat. It is not the only tune that reveals a renewed emphasis on composition; the jumping “P’lod In the House” and “Kaleidoscope” show attention to harmony and melody. And this might be the Flecktones most densely textured album yet, as the various parts weave together in ways that reward the closest listening.”The Hidden Land” finds the Flecktones still on familiar terrain. But for a band that has been doing a familiar thing for a long time and has issued a lot of material, it still manages to feel like a major effort.Chris Thile & Mike Marshall, “Live Duets”recorded by Fred Forssell (Sugar Hill)Given that “Live Duets” features nothing but Chris Thile and Mike Marshall, it is a fair question to ask: Exactly how much can be done with dueling mandolins? So it should be pointed out that the second CD by Thile & Marshall is more than mandolins. They also pull out mandolas and mandocellos, and their almost incomprehensibly enormous vision of what those mandolins and mandolin-related instruments can do.Apart from an arrangement of a Bach solo violin partita, all of “Live Duets” is original music, and their joint vocabulary takes ideas from European classical (“The Only Way Out”) to Bulgarian sounds (“Sedi Donka”) to newgrass (“Joy Ride in a Toy Car/Hey Ho”). While the compositions are immense, the album always gives the feel that Marshall and Thile are right there in the moment, listening and responding as they go.

“Speechless,” Bruce Cockburnproduced by Cockburn and Colin Linden (Rounder)Bruce Cockburn almost one-ups Marshall and Thile. “Speechless” is a compilation of the guitarist’s solo instrumental recordings, with a few new pieces tossed in. Cockburn has the range and skill, both in composition and technique, to make an album of solo guitar worthwhile. “Speechless” is soothing, but hardly sleep-inducing. Don’t file this solo instrumental record under New Age. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is