Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Prescription Bluegrass Reviews - BLUEGRASS EXPRESS - In Our Own Words

PRESCRIPTION BLUEGRASS IMAGE  - CD REVIEW  W.J. HALLOCK REVIEWS BLUEGRASS EXPRESSIf you want to record a bluegrass CD and make sure it is special, unique and individualized, keep it in the family! That rule of thumb seems to work for the Underwood family band, BLUEGRASS EXPRESS, from Illinois.

Three generations of musical talent have put a familial ring to their new project, “In Our Own Words.” All twelve songs have been written by either the Underwood Patriarch, Gary, his son Greg or grandson Jacob.

The CD kicks off with one of Jacob’s compositions, “The Road Ends.” Jacob drives the song with a first class banjo intro and solo, and takes it out with a solid performance.

Guest fiddler Tim Crouch plays some sweet twin fiddles and his solo slides in for a seamless transition between the fiddle and the banjo. The only non family member of BLUEGRASS EXPRESS, Andy Hatfield, makes his mandolin licks a delight to listen to. Greg sings it with a strong, purposeful voice, and the short, but very affective vocal bridge Jacob has written adds just the right amount of pizzazz, but Jacob’s tenor harmony is mixed a little too far back for my taste. The same can be said for the rest of the CD, as well. I kept listening, and the liner notes were specific as to who sang what part and where, but the harmony vocals were usually just too soft in the final mix.

The first of Greg’s eight originals is next. “I’ll Be Gone,” has a nicely recorded guitar kick off played by Greg and backed by Tim’s fiddle. Sierra Hull sits in on mandolin, and she, Jacob and Tim add the solos and fills that nail down very distinctly the song’s bluegrass identity. The only problem I could hear is that with Greg’s lead vocal he seems to be straining to reach the notes in the upper register of this song, which causes some intonation issues. In my humble opinion, if the song had been dropped from the key of E to the key of D, that may have made for a better result. Greg also plays electric bass on all cuts on the CD, and his timing is dead on, especially on this selection. He provides the motor to keep this entire presentation on the leading edge of the tempo, which in turn adds a very “alive” presence to the CD’s overall sound.

The  feel and the beauty of acoustic instruments is excellent and was recorded with an ear for getting it right.”

  Greg’s “Lonely Hearts,” is just plain SUPER! His vocals are expressive, in tune and he sings it like he means it! He threw in some hot bass licks that add to the drive, and Tim Crouch’s wonderful twin fiddles make the song sizzle. Andy and Jacob weren’t about to be left behind and add some special ZING to their fills and solos. Well done guys!

The up tempo drive of “Down In Tennessee” really shows off the talents of the entire band instrumentally. It’s a well written piece and the lyrics are strong and purposeful, but, just when the recording starts to really accelerate, for some reason they chose to cut the song short at only 2:34. I don’t know why they didn’t let this song just take off and soar. It could have gone from good to great with an added dose of musical freedom.

“There’ll Never Be Another You,” which Greg and Jacob wrote together, and “Heartbreakers In Love” both mirror the texture, tempo and feel of “Down In Tennessee.” Hot licks, good performances and stock arrangements all make for good listening, but, none of the three reach out and grab this listener by the ears and shake me!

“Baby’s Gone For Good,” Greg’s only ballad on the CD, has all the ingredients to make for a good tear-jerker. Good lyrics and melody, a strong vocal delivery backed by Jacob singing two parts to make for nice three part harmony, killer twin fiddles, a delicate mandolin track and the guitar is recorded extremely well. At 4:41, though, it could have been shortened, and that would have left the listener wanting more and pushing REPLAY. The slower tempo makes it drag just enough that I lost interest after the solos. This is a case where less would have been more. No matter how good a song is, the second the listener tunes out, you’ve lost them and they’re on to the next selection. Those little details can make or break a CD, and it behooves the producers, in this case the band members, to be cognizant of the possibility of just such detrimental results before the song is ever recorded.

On “My Journey Leads to You,” Jacob steps up and plays both lead guitar and fiddle along with his banjo duties, and does a fine job on each. The arrangement is pure and simple, but the tempo makes the song drag. Again I have to say that the choice of key wasn’t thought out very well, as Greg is straining for notes he almost hits. In my honest opinion, the best key for the lead vocalist should always dictate what key the instruments play it in. The human voice has it’s limits, up OR down, and accommodating the voice makes the difference between success or failure. In the studio, there are all kinds of tricks to work around awkward keys….. tunings, capos and, when all else fails, just gutting it out and playing it where it needs to be. This problem has occurred before on this CD, so maybe what’s needed on their next project is an outside producer who will help in the prep work and decision making needed before they ever hit the studio. Sometimes you can be too close to something to notice the obvious.

“New True Love,” Greg’s final contribution, has him playing his best walking bass lines and solo segments to drive a swing arrangement of the tune. Tim’s twin fiddles again make magic and Andy plays some nice lead guitar. The song has the most distinct feel on the CD and is a good departure from the rest of the total package. Gary steps up and sings lead on the chorus’, and it’ll make you want to dance!

Jacob and Bethany Burie have co-written a gospel gem entitled “The Key To Heaven.” Bethany joins Jacob with her harmony vocals and the chorus’ shines when they sing together. Lyrically and melodically the song is very strong, well written and genuinely devotional. Again Jacob shows his musical dexterity by playing both fiddle and banjo. The only weak spot on the tune is Jacob’s lead vocal on the verses…… the low notes elude him. I don’t know if he just needed to warm up more vocally, sing the song with more strength, power and diaphragm or move the key up a half step. Maybe he could have tried the opposite attack and sung it softer and more intimately. A trick I use, if I need to sing a vocal track louder or softer, is I adjust the volume in my headphones up or down to force me to either belt it out or lay it back almost to a whisper. Jacob has the vocal talents, maybe the solution is nothing more than just concentrating and spending more time in the studio to lay down a better take. Learning just how to use the tools of the studio expertly is paramount to successful recording.

My favorite track is “It’s Raining Outside,” written and sung by the elder Underwood, Gary. It has that traditional country sound accentuated by bluegrass instrumentation that I grew up on and still love today. Twin fiddles and nice vocal harmonies give it that old-timey, two-step sound, and banjo, mandolin and fiddle solos glide through the song with a nostalgic ease. Gary sings it with a laid back, effortless performance all his own. The song has an appeal that I find really adds to the overall personality of the CD.

The twelfth and final song is a gospel number of Gary’s entitled “Sinner Hear Me.” It’s medium tempo make’s it a hand clapper, and the lively spirit the instruments emit is perfect for the message. Again, Gary sings it with his own individual style and it’s a highlight of the CD.

In the early days of bluegrass recording, it was all simply done around one microphone, and if there was a mistake, they would stop and do another “take.” When they got a good take, they were usually done….. no over dubbing, punching in or fixing of minute glitches. If Lester Flatt sang a song a bit flat or sharp, or a tad out of time, as long as the rest of the take was fine, it was sometimes over looked and chalked up to Lester’s vocal personality. It was the same for so many of the founding fathers of bluegrass. The oddities of Bill Monroe’s voice are part of what made him such a big star. The way they sang was not judged as harshly as it is for today’s singers. For so many years, the pickin’ seemed to take precedence over the vocals, and I think some bluegrass fans still carry that mind set. We have the equipment now to make all recordings as good as possible, the trick is to not lose the emotion and feel of those old time records while capturing today’s music. On this CD, I didn’t hear one mistake or problem with the music or the instrumentation. The quality and audio reproduction was right on the money. The “feel” and the “beauty” of acoustic instruments is excellent and was recorded with an ear for “getting it right.” Even the electric bass, though not a traditional instrument, fit’s in like it was born for bluegrass. Plum River Sound Studio and Panther Creek Studios should be applauded for the great job they did here.

The problems I have pointed out can all be directly linked to the vocals, and as harshly as I may have enumerated them, they can all be remedied! No where on this CD did I hear a lack of talent or someone being in over their head. Focus, dedication and a consistent work ethic can make these vocals shine as brightly as the instruments. BLUEGRASS EXPRESS has all the tools to succeed, they just need to fine tune their studio “chops” and their God given talents. Good luck!

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