Albums feted for suiting troubled times tend to magnify darkness, be it though politicized takes on persistent issues or realistic portrayals of common folks’ day-to-day struggles. Progressive bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters offer an exception to that rule with Rise Sun, the follow-up to the Grammy-winning 2017 album Laws of Gravity.
Bluegrass tradition and jamband precision drive a broad mish-mash of songs that share a coherent theme: unwavering positivity isn’t a sign of weakness or a byproduct of compromise. This common thread comes in part from an improvisational band’s willingness to pre-plan its 13 new songs before entering the studio.
The Nashville-based quintet’s old-timey tendencies shine on the nearly six-minute instrumental “Cloud Valley,” harmony showpiece “Last of the Lucky Ones,” and the series of white-hot instrumental breakdowns that make up “Carry Me Away.” These well-crafted, skillfully performed songs push bluegrass into its ninth decade as an evolving American artform.
Other tracks introduce modern themes and sounds to the band’s quest for peace. “Wake the Dead” features lyrical themes from ’90s party country, meaning its words would’ve suited a Travis Tritt single during his rocking heyday. Another slight musical detour comes once “Truth and Love” starts sounding like the kind of indie-folk anthem that’s synonymous with summer festival season. Neither seem too out of the ordinary from a band that values its storytelling needs over the invisible genre boundaries that limit many bluegrass acts.
Don’t misinterpret the band’s level-headed plea for positivity with country sunshine, poptimism, or sticking one’s head in the sand. Songs of encouragement such as “Somewhere in Between” represent setting aside differences for the greater good, not selfishly ignoring problems that might be simplified through teamwork. Life’s struggles are acknowledged, with the band viewing our separate journeys into faith and our treatment of others as keys to improving ourselves before we take on the world.
This “give peace a chance” attitude doesn’t oppose the more combative stances found in modern protest music. Instead, guitarist Andy Falco, banjo player Chris Pandolfi, dobro player Andy Hall, fiddler Jeremy Garrett, and double bass player Travis Book helped write an intertwined set of songs that represent a different side of the same socially aware coin that funds less positive, equally progressive artists’ countercultural capital.