Monday, June 3, 2013

Prescription Bluegrass Reviews: Head For The Hills–Blue Ruin

Image635058646067896074Blue Ruin consists of 12 selections composed and performed by the Colorado based group, Head for the Hills, including 10 vocal cuts and 2 instrumentals.

The opening cut, Take Me Back, is reminiscent of an early Country Gazette-style offering, particularly with respect to the rhythm style and vocal arrangement.

Though there’s no banjo on this cut, it would otherwise suggest that a regimen of modern Bluegrass fare might be forthcoming. However, with the opening of the next cut, Never Does, you know you’ve stumbled onto something exotic indeed.

Never Does’ feel is more like modern Indie/Grunge merged with Bohemian Gypsy music, complete with train-whistle style background harmonies.

That said, Never Does is brilliantly seductive, as is the title cut, Blue Ruin, which starts out harmless enough, with guitar rhythm and solo vocals, followed by nice violin and guitar fills. But, just when you thought you were safe, the delicate tintinnabulations of electric piano start sneaking out from your speakers to remind you (in case you momentarilyImage635058654845138104 lapsed into a coma) this is not your grandpa’s string music.

Priscilla the Chinchilla is one of two instrumentals that serve to establish to the listener that these guys are serious musicians. Michael Chappell’s mandolin chops are especially strong, and obvious, on this cut, as is his taste in note choices and rhythms.

One of my favorite cuts is Wish You Well, with its persistent undercurrent of swelling jazz lines and chopped rhythms complimenting the vocals. It also has a few of those magical moments when you’re sure you’re hearing something both unique and cool.

If Dependency Co.’s clever lyrics aren’t enough to reassure you that you’re in uncharted string-music waters, the trumpet solo should do it. That effort, for the record, comes off really well. Overall, Head for the Hill’s ability to tastefully integrate horns into their recordings is a testament to their very capable production skills.

Another of my favorites from this project is Bosun Ridley, a dark tale of maritime tragedies. Joe Lessard’s violin layered with Matt Loewen’s bass is a particularly effective haunting touch, as are some of the special effects, all tastefully rendered.

Breakfast Noir is a perfect instrumental fit for this project. It is a Gypsy jazz-like piece consistent with the instrumental approach throughout much of the recording. Guitarist Adam Kingshorn seems to be in his element with an extraordinary Django-ish performance on this one. Also, the tenor banjo lines are a very nice, very hip, touch as are the unison passages with guitar and violin.

Light The Way is perhaps Head For the Hill’s consolation to Bluegrass aficionados. It is by far the piece that best fits under that broad metaphorical umbrella commonly referred to as Bluegrass. It is also the only track that has 5-string banjo, which is expertly manifested by Aaron Youngberg. Nothing illegal here. It’s full-bore Bluegrass with a few of their own stylistic nuances mixed in.

I could find no ‘weak links’ in the instrumentalists or vocalists for this project. There are no “bad” cuts. Though Bluegrass purists may find little comfort in the overall musical motif, these guys are very good and I believe most modern “Bluegrass” listeners will enjoy and respect this work. Their presentation is polished and both their command of their instruments and their song writing talents are considerable. The overall recording quality is in keeping with modern standards associated with professional recordings. Blue Ruin is a tight, very unique and very enjoyable recording that should serve to advance Head For the Hill’s career, as well as to help establish them as stylists in the acoustic music world.

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