An introduction to the music of Illinois five-piece The Way Down Wanderers is like meeting a stranger that you find instantly likable. This was so of the band’s 2016 self-titled debut, and it continues to be so on their new album, Illusions. In addition to songwriting skills wholly impressive for their youth, and their equally admirable musicianship, there is a charisma in their sound accompanied by a positivity that proves infectious.
Combining elements of alternative folk, newgrass, rock, pop, and more, The Way Down Wanderers take the time-tested roots formula and dare to add their own unique ingredients and shake it up a bit. As a result, we get a refreshing contemporary take on an esteemed vintage sound. And if you give the Wanderers’ music a thorough listen you will quickly discover that they clearly hold a healthy respect for traditional roots music. This they achieve by crafting polished, quality songs with an organic sound made up of lush strings, excellent picking, strong bass, tight drumming, and trade-off vocals that transition easily from grounded to soaring.
Illusions opens with an upbeat piece of Americana, “Principles of Salt,” in which the members of the band — songwriters Austin Krause-Thompson (guitars and keyboards) and Collin Krause (mandolin and fiddle), and John Williams (bass and vocals), John Merikoski (drums), and Travis Kowalski — strum, pick, pluck, and beat out a hearty rhythm and catchy melody beneath a good deal of vocal harmonizing. “Frozen Through,” another standout, is a foot-stomping pop-grass composition prominently featuring the banjo. “She’s Alright,” although consistent with the band’s eclecticism, is a cool folk-rock tangent. The album’s title track has a sound that resembles old-school rhythm and blues, but with a decidedly chill, jazzy component. “Moonglow Carolina” is a folksy rambler of a song, while “Lonesome” is an energetic picker. And Illusions closes with the fitting number, “Old Ford” — a folk-pop song whose lyrics focus largely on existential matters with what seems like an underlying call to seize the day.
The only track that seems a little out of place among the rest is “All My Words.” This is because it is heavy on the mainstream pop vibe and very light on roots, with spoken word vocals. That’s not to say that it’s a bad song. To the contrary, it is honestly pretty enjoyable. And given how The Way Down Wanderers resist locking themselves into a single genre, it is at least consistent with their determination to combine music styles and blur the lines between genres.
If you’re a fan of artists like Frontier Ruckus, Punch Brothers, or Alex Ebert (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros), there is likely something about The Way Down Wanderers that you can appreciate.