In the almost 20 years the members of Trampled by Turtles have played together, they have learned to trust the process, bringing their best to recording sessions while remaining open to the possibilities that unfold. Alpenglow, the band’s 10th album, is an artfully curated listening experience that lives up to the band’s live performances.
The album title evokes the rosy wash of light in the mountains just before sunrise or sunset, just as the songs play with the tension between nostalgia for the past and uncertainty in the face of change ahead. The opening song “It’s So Hard to Hold On” projects an underlying carpe diem message, “Time goes fast, grab your lover and hold them,” while acknowledging that while the years fly, the days sometimes crawl.
The melancholy edge to lead singer and songwriter Dave Simonett’s voice strikes a balance between confessional and hopeful. In “Starting Over” he notes, “I still stay up much too late” and in “Nothing but Blue Skies,” “I drank more than I should / I can’t help it, it felt good.” He sings in “Central Hillside Blues” of imagining what’s going on “in a town I love / so far from here,” then, in “On the Highway,” expresses gratitude and hope for better times.
On Alpenglow, the six members of Trampled by Turtles once again highlight their distinctive vocal sound, with Simonett’s lead augmented by perfectly placed layered harmonies that parallel the interplay as the stripped-down acoustics of banjo, guitar, and mandolin give way to full, rich strings throughout the album. But that doesn’t mean the album is predictable. On successive tracks, the band alternates tempos, sometimes against expectations. “Starting Over” urges, “Don’t let go / don’t let go,” then breaks into full-out dance mode. That song is followed by the slower pace of the plaintive “Central Hillside Blues,” which gives way to the up-tempo “On the Highway.”
Simonett wrote 10 of the 11 tracks on the project, with producer Jeff Tweedy of Wilco contributing “Lifetime to Find,” a dialogue between the protagonist and Death that is a complete departure from Faust or Ralph Stanley. Simonett credits Tweedy’s influence on songs he thought were finished when he brought them to the project. In particular, he says in a press release announcing the album, Tweedy contributed to the album’s “economy of language and time.” Trampled by Turtles’ personal dynamics also strengthened the final product. The songs developed, adds mandolinist Erik Berry, “by listening to each other and playing well.” The band recorded the album all together in Tweedy’s Chicago studio. While the process does not allow for easy fixes or overdubs, it showcases the six members at their best — playing together.
Some of the titles draw from classic songs, but they go their own direction. At the beginning of “Nothing but Blue Skies” the band sounds like they are tuning up, then they resolve into a waltz tempo. “All the Good Times Are Gone” opens with rolling banjo licks before the full band joins in, filling the space with an orchestral sound. The song builds to a pace ideal for square dancing, shifts back to Simonett’s simple melody, then rides back up from banjo to full instrumentation.
The final track ,“The Party’s Over,” has a two-step beat with a Western flavor with references to “smoky barrooms,” horses, and hands singing “Hi-ye, hi-yo.” Fans of Trampled by Turtles will be reassured that the party, indeed, is not over yet. After all, as “Central Hillside Blues” reminds listeners, “A song ain’t worth nothing if it doesn’t last.” On Alpenglow, Trampled by Turtles lays down tracks with lasting power.
Trampled by Turtles’ Alpenglow is out Oct. 28 via Thirty Tigers.