Hit & Run finds right direction on new CD
August 18, 2005
Reviews of some recent CDs from the planet of bluegrass:Hit & Run Bluegrass, “Without Maps or Charts”produced by Hit & Run with Kenny & Amanda SmithFront Range quintet Hit & Run Bluegrass has had the up-and-coming tag since the first time they played in Aspen, two years ago. On their second CD, “Without Maps or Charts,” their arrival is confirmed.Hit & Run doesn’t break into far-flung terrain here, but neither do they sound just like something that’s been heard before. They do make a point to cover all the bluegrass bases, from the folky ballad “I’ve Kissed You My Last Time,” featuring weepy harmonies that match the song’s emotional tone, to the crackling “Flying in the Wind,” with banjoist Aaron Youngberg in the driver’s seat, to the spiritual “Got the Keys to the Kingdom.”
The only element not here is the burning instrumental number. But “Without Maps or Charts” doesn’t skimp on showcasing the band’s solid picking; check out the intro to Ralph Stanley’s “Highway of Regret.” Capping it all is lead singer Rebecca Hoggan, whose voice hits every sweet spot in the book.Nickel Creek, “Why Should the Fire Die?”produced by Eric Valentine and Tony Berg (Sugar Hill)”This Side,” Nickel Creek’s last album, didn’t hit me fully on the first or second listening. But by the end of 2003, it was on my list of the year’s best albums.With “Why Should the Fire Die?” it’s the same thing, which to me is an indication of several good things. What Nickel Creek is doing – making pop music on acoustic instruments – is something new, and it takes awhile for it to settle into the ears. It is also complex and ambitious in almost every way, requiring something of the listener. On “Jealous of the Moon,” the sounds swell and dip and build, with Chris Thile’s voice rising and tailing off to match. The instrumental “Scotch & Chocolate” reminds one of chamber music in its dynamics and structure – even when, at the midpoint, it takes off into furious jamming led by guitarist Sean Watkins. Nickel Creek even seems to have put considerable thought into picking out a Bob Dylan song to cover – not the usual suspects, but the obscure “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” which provides a great vehicle for Sara Watkins’ tender voice. The group makes the most of the studio on “Eveline,” whose swing rhythm seems to come from a remote, ancient place.
I’m not sure if “Why Should the Fire Die?” will take its place among the best of 2005. But I have the feeling that the more turns it gets in the player, the better its chances.Psychograss, “Now Hear This”produced by Todd Phillips(Adventure Music)”Now Hear This,” the first album in nine years by acoustic, instrumental supergroup Psychograss, is so easy on the ears, so seamlessly executed, that you might overlook how much goes into an album of this sort. This isn’t a matter of taking five of the finest pickers – fiddler Darol Anger, mandolinist Mike Marshall, banjoist Tony Trischka, bassist Todd Phillips and guitarist David Grier, and throwing them in a room for a jam session. Although that would have its merits, too. But here the songs are immaculately composed and arranged pieces of jazz-inflected newgrass. Trischka’s “Looks Like a Duck” is a beauty, with its distinct section flowing one into another as if it were ordered that way from heaven. Phillips’ “One Foot in the Gutter” at times has the feel of a wide-open groove – until they hit the stops and turns that make the songs stand out.
Flatt & Scruggs, “Foggy Mountain Jamboree” and “Foggy Mountain Gospel”Earl Scruggs, “I Saw the Light with Some Help From My Friends” (Columbia/Legacy)Bluegrass prototypes, guitarist Lester Flatt and banjoist Earl Scruggs, get the deluxe reissue treatment. And from the first notes of “Foggy Mountain Jamboree,” an essential piece of bluegrass from the early ’50s, Flatt & Scruggs earn the respect. The two weren’t only among the first, as members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s, but among the best. Some of Flatt’s singing on “Foggy Mountain Jamboree” sounds dated, but the picking, as on the red-hot “Flint Hill Special” or the seminal “Earl’s Breakdown,” never does. The better overall singing is found on “Foggy Mountain Gospel,” a two-CD collection spanning 1951-66.”I Saw the Light” is of a different era and a different kind. In 1969, Flatt & Scruggs parted ways, Scruggs looking to broaden his musical range. This album, from 1971, pairs the banjoist with a young band – headed by three of his sons – and country-pop stars Linda Ronstadt, Tracy Nelson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The material is from the country realm (Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light”), blues (Nelson’s “Motherless Child Blues”) and pop (“Some of Shelley’s Blues”). Scruggs’ banjo isn’t center-stage as it was when he played with Flatt. But the music, despite the broad spectrum crammed into one album, has its appeal.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org