by Dan King
On a recent field trip to Zia Records, I discovered two albums in the Bluegrass/Americana section that would fit the criteria for review on Prescription Bluegrass. One was Leonard Cohen’s “Old Ideas” and the other was The Grascals “Life Finds A Way.” I also found a CD by a fellow named Charles Manson in the section, but I’m still not sure if that was some store employees idea of a bad joke, or if perhaps there is a hot new mandolin player on the scene with a very unfortunate name. At any rate, I opted for the Grascal’s latest offering and headed for the checkout.
When I got home I put “Life Finds A Way” on the old Victrola and was immediately struck by the easy relaxed feel of the first tune. So much of bluegrass music is teeth gritting, pedal-to-the-metal white water frenzy, but these notes just floated into my studio like a group of new friends that I’d known my whole life. Comfortable. Confident. Welcome.
This album is very commercial. The arrangements are what might be called get in and get out arrangements. The tunes are timed like top 40 hits, very concise and to the point, catchy, and with a soft, satisfying landing at the end. Perhaps that is why this recording gets more enjoyable with each listen. The music is so pleasing you can’t wait to hear it again, yet so smartly presented that you’re not aurally worn out after a run-through or two. Or five. Or ten.
The factor that leads to the comfortable feel of this album is the impeccable timing that the musicians possess, especially banjo player Kristin Scott Benson. A lot of the grooves seem to center on the ones set by her banjo comping, and the other players follow in lock step with solid, equally spaced note values.
The result is a very cohesive unit without a lot of the push/pull that can ensue when all the players in a group try to race each other to the end of the songs.
Lest you get the impression that all this talk of comfort means this is an album of ballads, it is not. “Life Finds A Way” has its share of barn burners.” Eleven Eleven” for example absolutely SMOKES! “Lay That Hammer Down” is slick as a whistle, hot as a pistol. But even the light speed stuff on this CD comes at you with an effortless feel. Two Harley Allen tunes are standouts for their writing and 5 co-writes from the band along with a couple standards round out the bulk of the project. There is also a James Taylor song included, ”Sweet Baby James.”
There’s really not a clam in the bunch.
The Grascals are very accessible on this album, with catchy pop styled arrangements, good songs, great vocal harmonies, and some of the most confident playing in the business.
If the record lacks anything, it might be the absence of the avante garde. But so much popular music these days is so heavy on the “different” and light on the talent that it’s refreshing to hear an album whose art is in the art itself, and not in the shock value.
This is the Grascals’ first project on Mountain Home Records and based on the results, I’d say it’s a wonderful marriage. This recording seems destined for commercial success. Coupled with its top notch execution, this reviewer would not be surprised to hear the Grascal’s name being bandied about when the award shows begin creeping up a little later in the season.
The Grascals “Life Finds A Way” earns a four and one half banjo strings rating and a big old bottle of Bluegrass Pop.
I just know it’s going to go down easy.
Dan King writes for Prescription Bluegrass