Belleville, Illinois, five-piece Old Salt Union proves its skill as a modern stringband while mostly avoiding folk and bluegrass tropes on its new album Where the Dogs Don’t Bite.
Bandmates Ryan Murphey (banjo), Justin Wallace (lead vocals and mandolin), John Brighton (violin), Jesse Farrar (lead vocals and bassist), and recent addition Graham Curry (guitar) ignore the often enforced and sometimes limited boundaries of stringband music by sculpting their own vision from familiar blocks of clay.
Opening track “God You Don’t Need” darkens lyrics about a relationship gone sour with traces of not just banjo-led stringband music but also jazz, classical, and pop elements. As songs under the broad Americana umbrella should, it uses time-tested methods to tell an unheard tale. Other unexpected twists and turns come when the more folk sounding “Hurt Somebody” and bluegrass ode “Ebb & Flow” sidestep clichés and tell equally fresh stories.
As its cryptic name implies, the title track goes down an unexpected path when what starts out sounding like something from an acoustic open mic night incorporates triple-layered guitar harmonies and what can best be described as a spirited barroom sing-along among band members.
When the band stays closer to its roots, it’s a formidable folk outfit. For instance, the bluegrass-flavored “Tell Me So” allows Wallace, its writer, a chance to duet with a true living legend Bobby Osborne (The Osborne Brothers). It’s the second song on the album, thrusting listeners from the gloomy “God You Don’t Need” to a feel-good nostalgia trip with one of the men behind “Rocky Top”’s lasting popularity.
Other tradition-honoring examples include the fiery fiddle tunes “Heartbroke and Lonesome” and “Johann’s Breakdown,” folk-punk harmony showpieces “Holdin’ On” and “Big Dreams, Small Talk,” and the musical equivalent of a scenic train ride, “Promised Land.”
It’s a solid, unpredictable set of songs by a formidable band that’s hopefully gotten a boost lately from touring with Jesse’s uncle, Son Volt’s Jay Farrar.