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click to enlarge Yonder Mountain String Bands Elevation
  • Yonder Mountain String Bands Elevation

Yonder Mountain String Band

Elevation

Frog Pad Records

Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts, and there's usually a load of compromising on the road to a roots-based band cresting that horizon. But in an age when bluegrass bands cloak themselves in passels of hyphenated modifiers, the Yonder Mountain String Band are content to be recognized as traditionalists, the newest keepers of an undying flame.

Ever since people went out and started getting themselves exposed to whatnot and whatsit, bluegrass has found irresistible the influences of rock, jazz, classical, reggae, rhythm and blues, the eye-opening fusion of acid grass and reggae-billy, and the catch-all of the patently innovative new grass. But despite citing Zappa, Hendrix, Patsy Cline, the Beatles, Bob Marley, Metallica, skateboarding, punk rock and the Grateful Dead as musical influences, YMSB's album debut is straight-ahead bluegrass.

Elevation finds them at their purest, kicking off with the ambling 'Half Moon Rising,' a gentle gem from Jeff Austin capturing the road weary dream of a home over another mountain top, complete with a porch swing to rock the dusk into dawn. For contrast, Dave Johnston's 'Mental Breakdown' is a lightening storm of licks that holds nothing back in the high-charged leads sparking with traditional blue fire while subtly concealing a wink to the acoustic rebels who ignited their pursuit of finger pickin' punch lines, blending jaw-dropping dexterity with taste and integrity.

The album is remarkably restrained for a group that loves to stretch out in live performances. There are only occasional hints at the band's improvisational forays into slashgrash and suggestions of hidden layers to explore in their musical topography. They maintain the approach mandolinist Jeff Austin first used when he started playing guitar in sixth grade, inventing his own chords and naming them h, o, and r, spelling out sentences with the configurations he was creating. He continues to innovate as he fearlessly heads into the void with his mandolin leads, hitting pin point licks at incalculable speeds one minute, and bushwhacking into the psychedelic underbrush for unpredictable adventure in the next. His confident, soaring vocals bring a hard-traveled maturity to the band's definition, maintaining that elusive dialogue between a hypnotic innovator and the past masters he channels.

Banjo-man Dave Johnston makes a tender love song out of 'Eight Cylinders,' a ballad riding on the edge of twang, keeping pace with producer Sally Van Metre's lassos of electrified lap steel behind Johnston's lyrics, discovering a love song in a broken-down Ford where eight cylinders is 'your idea of Heaven.' Johnston greatest strength may be his instinct to restrain himself, taking satisfaction in maintaining a tight weave on the fabric his banjo lends to the band, leaving the listener yearning for more of his countermelodies colored with polished and pioneering licks.

Adam Aijala's 'Left Me in a Hole' is the kind of piece that serves as a signature song for the band, showcasing their hillbilly harmonies and their lyrical inclinations to use hollers, holes, and fishing poles as the instruments of love, and bassist Ben Kaufman lends the group some of the most polished songs, including 'The Bolton Stretch,' '40 Miles from Denver,' and 'On the Run,' reviving the western mythos populating the landscape with renegades and sheriffs perpetually leaving by the morning light.

Making a success out of a backwater band from Colorado is no accidental feat. Banking on nothing but confidence and idealism, YMSB made a full-time commitment to their music just over a year ago, quitting their day jobs, buying a Winebago, and hitting the road to see if they could generate the same enthusiasm for old school bluegrass that they'd reveled in around Nederland. The spring push landed them a gig at last year's Rocky Grass Festival, and they've been booked to sip from the golden sierra cup this summer, on stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. They attracted such luminous grassheads as Van Meter, Darol Anger and Mike Marshall to their album, learning quickly and carrying the mantle of mentors like Hot Rize's Charles Sawtell and their mountain neighbors, Leftover Salmon. This may be the last chance to see them way back when.

click to enlarge Yo, Flaco!s Skeptamistic
  • Yo, Flaco!s Skeptamistic

Yo, Flaco!

Skeptamistic

From the Pocket Productions

Squeeze into your polyester hiphuggers and get fresh goldfish for your platform go-gos, because you're going to want to look damn fly gettin' down to Denver-based band Yo, Flaco!'s new release, Skeptamistic. The CD skillfully blends hip-hop, funk, soul, jazz -- acid and otherwise -- on 12 diverse tracks, all written and arranged by members of the eight-man group.

The group has really come into their own with this album, proved by the easy coordination and comfort playing with one another evident in each track. "The River" highlights all aspects of their instrumental talent, with flowing horn melodies and constant, even percussion. "Benjamin's Ark," the only instrumental on the disc, begins with clever sax and scratch allusions to water and foghorns, only to merge into a fast-paced, disco-based ride around the turntables, punctuated by high-energy bursts of tenor sax. "Ark" would be the perfect funky soundtrack to any given '70s black detective flick.

Throughout Skeptamistic, certain musical performances stick out like Nixon in Studio 54 on Halloween. Showing off on "Emotions" is jazz guitarist Brandon Martin, with a mellow, well-crafted solo. Trombonist Steve Mercer and tenor sax players Ethan Raczka and Ben Hadwen never miss a note, but Hadwen's flute performances are part of the reason the album really glows. His solo on "Alotta Love" is one of the most artistic and skillful contours of the album. Another is keyboardist Matt Piazza's talented steeped-in-soul solo on "Rhyme and Reason." Throughout, Loren Comfort provides the percussion that carries the melodies along.

Eleven of the 12 tracks are led by the rap and hip-hop stylings of Doug Lipford and Neil McIntyre. Their meters and tones expertly present the well-written, optimistic lyrics based in everyday reality. "Turn Around" and the title track to Skeptamistic make the listener actually listen to the words, not usually a priority when accompanied by such tantalizing grooves.

click to enlarge Old 97s Fight Songs
  • Old 97s Fight Songs

Old 97's

Fight Songs

Elektra

These Texas boys have captured the broken-hearted eggplant-colored angst of a moody young romantic in a guitar string, and they're strumming it hard on their latest album, Fight Songs. Every song on the 12-track CD deals with some kind of strife, the majority stemming from the unexpected departure of a lady love, one literally escaping through a window on "Murder (or a Heart Attack)."

The original lyrics, while not exceptional or remarkable, are merely a tag-a-long to the great guitar work by Ken Bethea and Rhett Miller. The band has utilized the powerful instruments to their fullest potentials, creating driven, forceful and slightly Yardbird-esque musical melodies. The open track "Jagged" is a perfect example. Expert blending of drums, vocals and guitars balance the jaded, boyish lyrics with pure rocking rhythm.

Rhythm is key to Fight Songs, creating sounds you want to move your body in time with, even if you don't want to sing along. "Oppenheimer" and "Indefinitely" are both mushy enough to almost annoy, but so musically fit and trim that you can't help but hit repeat for another piece of their action.

Fight Songs is a great piece of music. Re-write the lyrics, or at least include one or two songs not about love or loss, and it would be one the finest new releases out there.

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