CD reviews: bluegrass bands at heart |

CD reviews: bluegrass bands at heart

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
The Wood Brothers bassist Chris and singer-guitarist Oliver have released their second album, Loaded. (Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen Times)

Today, we look at recent CD releases by artists showing a bit of a transition in their music.Railroad Earth, Amen Corner(SCI Fidelity)Yonder Mountain String Band, Mountain Track, Vol. 5 (Frog Pad Records)Both the New Jersey-based Railroad Earth and Colorados Yonder Mountain String Band have taken traditional bluegrass instrumentation the former with drums added to the configuration, the latter without and moved them toward the rock realm. But on their latest releases, both reveal their bluegrass hearts nothing that will remind anyone of Flatt & Scruggs, but definitely reminders that that old-school bluegrass is a foundation of their styles.The tight, tasty studio album Amen Corner features tunes like Bringin My Baby Back Home, a break-neck number centered around banjo and fiddle breaks, and the ballad Lil Bit of Me, in which lead singer/songwriter Todd Sheaffer reaches for his warm, affecting version of the high, lonesome sound. Though in concert Railroad Earth can well be considered a jam band, here jamming is not an 11-minute excursion into space, but Lonecroft Ramble, a four-minute, instrumental ode to their recording studio in the hills of northwestern New Jersey.Mountain Track, Vol. 5 which features one disc from a July 2007 Ohio show, and one compilation of various odds and ends begins with the band asking the crowd if theyve heard of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the quintessential guitar/banjo bluegrass team. Why they ask is unclear; they then launch into a version of Sideshow Blues, by contemporary alt-country songwriter Todd Snider. But perhaps the invocation of Flatt & Scruggs has a point. While Yonder Mountain has pushed further into the experimental realm, both on stage and on their last studio album, 2006s eponymous release, here its back to basics. Not only do they play in a style recognizable as a kin to bluegrass, but the song choices are consistently from the string-band repertoire Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe rather than, say, Talking Heads, who they have been known to cover. Its open to debate whether Yonder Mountain is a better, more interesting band pushing traditional instruments in new ways. But the latest volume of their live Mountain Track series shows that they have become, at least, a reasonably accomplished string band.Yonder Mountain String Band is scheduled to perform Sept. 1 at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival in Snowmass Village. Neil Diamond, Home Before Dark produced by Rick Rubin (Columbia)The cynic says that producer Rick Rubin has developed a sure-fire formula: Take an aged singing legend (Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond), put him into an acoustic mold, and let the raves pour in. But the more generous view recognized that this doesnt work without a worthy singer and the right songs, and on Home Before Dark, Rubins second album with Diamond, hes got both. Diamonds voice is as impassioned as ever, and the fact is, hes a first-rate writer. The standout track here, One More Bite Of the Apple, manages to be both sweetly nostalgic and gritty; if anything, Rubin could have coaxed an even more stripped-down vocal performance from Diamond.Cassandra Wilson, Loverlyproduced by Wilson (Blue Note)Cassandra Wilson has put herself on top of the jazz vocalist heap by not strictly singing jazz. Her last album, the wonderful 2006 release Thunderbird, was produced by the adventurous T-Bone Burnett, and featured sampled sounds and atmospheric guitars. Before that came Belly of the Sun, her blues-soaked tribute to the Mississippi Delta.On Loverly, Wilson plays it about as straight as she can as a jazz singer. The production effects are minimal; the backing is from a common bass/drums/piano/guitar combo. And she dives into the standards repertoire: The Very Thought of You, Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, Wouldnt It Be Loverly, and so on. And she absolutely knocks it out of the park, bringing a smart, unique, lyrical and soft sensibility to the material, while staying right in the pocket.The Wood Brothers, Loaded produced by John Medeski (Blue Note)Brothers Chris and Oliver Wood seem to have been separated at birth. Chris is the bassist of the avant-groove trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, while singer-guitarist Oliver settled for structured, folk-blues. In the Wood Brothers, which they launched with 2006s Ways Not to Lose, it was Olivers style that won out, as they spun a tasty take on roots music. Loaded, their second album, is more of the same, but on a broader palette, with string sections, guest artists and hints of experimentation. They dip into gospel, with a little bit of an edge in both the sound and lyrics, on Pray Enough, and explore the songbooks of both Dylan (an inventive, low-key Buckets of Rain) and Hendrix (a slightly reggaefied take on Angel, with Amos Lee chipping in on vocals)