The Infamous Stringdusters – Things That Fly (Sugar Hill, 2010)
There’s a power to this sextet’s progressive acoustic and bluegrass sounds that leans into the listener like a poke in the chest. The instruments are mostly the standard acoustic assortment, but the verve with which they’re picked, and the group’s punchy vocal harmonies are heavier than one might expect from a contemporary acoustic outfit. As on their previous self-titled album, the band writes many of their own songs, generally avoids the standard bluegrass canon and stretch their genre with an acoustic reworking of U2’s “In God’s Country.” The latter amplifies the song’s force in group harmonies and a propulsive arrangement, but weans it from the original’s anthemic emotion. The group’s originals weave folk and country sounds with progressive arrangements and hot-picked strings. There are bluegrass intervals in their harmonies, but otherwise their melodies are quite progressive. The instrumental “Magic #9” suggests both – a melody with downtown jazz complications picked on acoustic string instruments from the hills.
The group features three lead vocalists, giving their sound more variety than a bluegrass band with a designated singer. They also welcome Dierks Bentley for a duet cover of Jody Stecher’s humorous encounter with a panhandler, “17 Cents.” Their new songs contemplate friends and family who are gone but not missing, previous generations whose impact reverberates through the family tree and friends who remain fresh in one’s memory. The group’s won bluegrass accolades (including several IBMA awards) and releases their CDs on vaunted Sugar Hill label, but there’s more here than a recitation of form. The massed voices at the end of “Masquerade” momentarily bring to mind 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” and guitarist Andy Falco pulls things into new directions with the addition of organ and piano. Perhaps most importantly, the group treats studio recording as its own music-making opportunity – rather than a way to document the band’s live sound. The vitality of live performance remains, but augmented by studio touches.