Saturday, November 22, 2014

CD Review - Feller & Hill - HERE COME FELLER & HILL AGAIN!

Image635522276802238047“Here Come Feller & Hill Again,” is one of those CD’s that for me, slipped through the cracks. I’ve been too scattered, for too long, to get the review I wanted to write even started, much less finished! I just about had the first copy of the CD the boys sent me worn out when it disappeared somewhere between Oklahoma and Colorado……where it went I do not know, but, I swear I’m never movin’ again! I loved their first release, and in my review of it, I said that it should be in the running for the IBMA “Album of the Year” award, and I meant it. For an artist to have their first recording be so focused, personalized and recognizable is unheard of, but Tom and Chris pulled it off in spectacular fashion. With this new one, (to keep from getting confused, I refer to it as #2,) the boys have stepped up their game considerably and it is every bit as good, or better, than their debut CD was. With liner notes written by none other than Tom T. Hall, this is another first class project from Tom and Chris, and, as with their first release, it’s also on Tom T’s Blue Circle Records.

One of Feller & Hill’s trademark assets are their vocals, they sing rings around each other, and it makes no difference who is singing which part, they nail it! Their harmonies always carry that Buck Owens/Don Rich quality, it’s uncanny how much they sound like them. On #2, they have added some technical wizardry to make their vocals big, fat, lush and sweet. Lots of oooohs and aaaahs in the background add a 1960’a flair to the project. Tom and Chris recorded both CD’s at their recording den, Buckaroo Studios in Greendale, Indiana. Their knowledge and comprehension of how to use all the latest recording techniques shows off their studio chops even more on #2. So many Bluegrass bands treat Image635522285755810708vocals as an afterthought to the pickin’, but not these guys! The vocals are hot in the mix and there’s no way to miss how good they are. Heather Berry-Mabe sings lead and harmony vocals on the gospel song “When Is He Coming Again,” and Rhonda Vincent adds her distinct voice to “Tired of Losing You,” and the vocals are excellent. Great performances and super studio engineering and mixing make them shine!

Tom and Chris show off their “brotherly harmony” on “HEY BABY,” written by Tom’s uncle, Aubrey Holt. Both Tom and Chris are alumni of the Holt family’s Wildwood Valley Boys, so it’s only natural that they would go to “family” in their search for new material. They bounce lyrics and phrases off one another on this tune that would make the Delmore’s, the Stanley’s and the Louvin’s jealous. The instrumental side of this selection is also top shelf. As on the last CD, Tom plays bass, guitar, mandolin, drums and even dobro, while Chris plays all the banjo tracks plus guitar and even pedal steel guitar! The fact that they can spend hours laying down all these instrumental and vocal building blocks themselves not only tells how talented and versatile they are, but it shows a depth of commitment to the FELLER & HILL sound! They know exactly how they want their music to be executed, produced and arranged, and they record it beautifully. The only outside musicians they used were Michael Cleveland and Steve Thomas on fiddles and Glenn Gibson on dobro. As alive as all these songs sound, you’d never know they were assembled piece by piece and at different times.

On Faron Young’s old hit recording “FORGET THE PAST,” the boys bring on that old 60’s country vibe and make it Feller & Hill property! Tom’s mandolin kickoff and Chris’ string bending banjo solo give this cut that F & H bluegrass tinge, but, all the background vocals took me right back to my teens, when you could hear this kind of Nashville “country” vocal magic all the time. There is no mistaking that special background sound that groups like The Jordanaire’s added to so many hit recordings, and the boys nailed that vocal treatment perfectly! I love how they can take something old and make it relevant and current within the context of their own new music. The boys are fervent fans of old school country, and by using those influences they prove that some things just never go out of style!

What turned me onto Feller & Hill in the first place was their version of “TOGETHER AGAIN,” and their way of sounding just like Buck Owens and Don Rich. They’ve done it again on Tom’s own song called “THE BALLAD OF BUCK AND DON.” Their harmonies are “Bakersfield” tight and the song itself is a tribute to the music written by Buck and Merle. Chris drops the banjo hammer in the kickoff and Tom plays some familiar twin mandolin licks taken from the melody lines of “Buckaroo” and “Sam’s Place,” and with the fiddle of Michael Cleveland adding some spice to it, it’s a hoot! Tom uses the titles of some of Buck’s biggest hits in the lyrics, and, at least to me, this song epitomizes the Feller & Hill sound. I really think they need to release this song as their next single, and it would go a long way toward making their signature sound more widely known. Since this CD has already been out a while, I asked Tom about airplay, and “THE GOVERNMENT BLUES,” by Tom T and Dixie Hall, and “NEVER ENDING SONG OF LOVE,” by Delaney Bramlett, both went to #2 on the Bluegrass charts and “NEVER ENDING SONG OF LOVE” was the #1 most played song on Sirius XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction for the month of September, 2014. Tom says that both these tunes are audience favorites at their live shows.

One of my favorite songs has to be “THREE LITTLE WORDS TOO LATE.” Written by Bobby Swinson. This little jewel is one that fits Feller & Hill like it was written just for them. Very simply arranged, and only 2:30 long, it’s done to perfection and its catchy melody will have you singing it hours later. The boys perform it in a very under stated way, but it hooks you immediately. They again use those old time vocals to accent the song’s lyrics and the instrumentation couldn’t be more sparse, but, it is fun to listen to and adds to that personality that Feller & Hill possess. My Mother would have loved this song, and the reason is, it’s filled with feeling, and Tom and Chris convey that feeling marvelously. It’s a winner!

The only instrumental included on this project is, simply put… fabulous! “SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE,” by Richard Rogers, gets a Bluegrass, Caribbean workout that presents this great classical composition like never before. Tom Feller plays mandolin on this one, and Steve Thomas’ fiddle/violin flourishes add the complete range of accompaniment from hillbilly to orchestral to make this a CD cut standout. Where the idea came from to include this one I don’t know, but I love it. The earliest version of this song I could find on YouTube was from 1936, and nothing like this version at all, but, that’s what makes a great song!! You can change it all around and it still holds up almost 80 years later! Nice touch guys!

All those old country influences on Chris and Tom come to a head on “TIRED OF LOSING YOU,” by Billy Smith and Tom T and Dixie Hall. This has to be my favorite song on the CD! Tom’s walking bass and brushes on the drums hold this right in time for a perfect two step. All that’s needed is a hard wood floor! Mr. Cleveland’s fiddle to kick it off, Tom’s mandolin and Chris’ banjo fills add a perfect blend of bluegrass licks to make it fit the Feller & Hill mold, but, when Chris starts his steel guitar crying it immediately crosses into country territory. I was so pleasantly surprised to hear Chris play steel this good!! He has the feel, the touch, the sound and the right amount of sorrow in his playing to make it fit perfectly. Great job Chris! Chris also sings lead on the first verse with Tom adding his harmony under Chris’ high lead for a different and rich vocal sound. It also doesn’t hurt that Rhonda Vincent comes in after the key change singing the second verse and the harmony takes off into the higher reaches of the stratosphere. The way Tom, Chris and Rhonda all slide up to some of the notes is vocally memorable.

On their first CD, Tom and Chris had included the song “WHAT WILL YOU GIVE FOR MY OLD JOHN DEERE,” written by Tom’s Mother, Judith Feller. At one time, she had been a columnist for Bluegrass Unlimited and according to Tom, Judy has written about thirty songs. It’s nice to see that they have included another of her compositions on #2. This one is entitled “STONE WOMAN BLUES,” and it is also one of those tunes that have that Feller & Hill bluegrass pickin’ with a country feel to it. Twin fiddles, twin mandolins, super banjo fills and a strong, driving bass track make this one another one to dance to. Tom sings lead and Chris’ high harmony give this song everything it needs to be radio ready, just like “TIRED OF LOSING YOU.”

In my mind, there is a cross genre sound that the boys have come up with that makes this CD even more radio friendly to other than just bluegrass stations. On “IT’LL BE TOO LATE,” by Charles M. Rader, they again grab that bouncy, danceable and fun Saturday night barn dance beat that just seems to work so well for them. On this one, Glenn Gibson throws out some sweet dobro licks that will tickle your ears, and Chris’ banjo has a honky-tonk feel to it that a lot of country guitar players will love. Tell me this isn’t exactly the sound you would have heard on The Grand Ol’ Opry in the 40’s and 50’s? And tell me this sound isn’t exactly what today’s so called “country music” needs to be called COUNTRY MUSIC again!!

Tom and Chris give us an old Don Reno gospel classic with “HE’S COMING BACK TO EARTH AGAIN,” and they get this one done up right also. With back and forth vocal syncopation and hot mandolin and banjo solos, this is bluegrass gospel at its best. They rock the rafter’s with this one, and then finish out the CD with another “Uncle” Aubrey Holt number caller “HERE COMES POLLY.” It kicks off with twin fiddles and when the first chorus starts you immediately hear the low bass singing of Cody Jones. The vocals on this one shine like a new penny and Cody hits notes so low that if they had not been beefed up in the mix they might not have been heard at all. Fortunately, Tom and Chris know how to handle the engineering side of the recording process so well that none of Cody’s notes are missed at all. J.D. Sumner would have loved to have heard Cody Jones hit those low notes that end this song. This song has all the ingredients for a hit record also, and I know that I’ve said that plenty in this review, but, it’s true.

This CD, as was their first one, is full of wonderful songs, excellent instrumentation, personality, exacting technical expertise and exceptional vocals. There are no weak spots… anywhere! It’s full of hard work, thoughtful song selections, well planned arrangements and a generous use of their musical roots in bluegrass, gospel and country. YEP… it is not too late to pick up your copy of “Here Come Feller & Hill Again.” And… if for some reason you don’t have their first release, get it, too!

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