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Lonely Heartstring Band: Smoke & Ashes
by George Graham
(Rounder Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/8/2019)
Over the last 30 years or so, bluegrass has gone through a lot of evolution. After Bill Monroe originated it in the 1940s, it grew in popularity during the folk music scene of the 1960s, which was strong on keeping things traditional. And thus the genre remained until the 1980s when some upstarts who came from rock and some jazz backgrounds, like David Grisman, Tony Rice and Sam Bush began experimenting with mixing it with jazz and other genres, building on the instrumental virtuosity and improvisation that was a part of the best bluegrass music. Thus began the New Acoustic scene as it was called, and in its day, it drew a lot of objections from traditionalists. Since then, most of those have either died off or come around to being more open to eclecticism. Then in the early 2000s, another new generation came along who took things to another level with even higher levels of musicianship and sophisticated compositions that could incorporate classical, world music and other wide-influences. Chris Thile and his band were at the vanguard of that movement, who also included artists like Crooked Still with Aoefa O’Donovan, and Thile’s other ensemble the Punch Brothers.
This week we have a new recording by a group that embodies that, third generation of bluegrass and eclectic music, Lonely Heartstring Band, whose new second release is called Smoke & Ashes.
Lonely Heartstring Band are a quintet from the Boston area, and graduates of the Berklee College of Music, whose alumni include a lot of jazz and fusion musicians, but also people like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. They formed in 2012, and feature conventional bluegrass instrumentation, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and bass. The members are George Clements on guitar, Charles Clements on bass – from the band photo, they appear to be identical twins, plus fiddler Patrick M’Gonigle. The Clementses and McGonigle do the vocals. On mandolin is Maddie Witler, and the banjo man is Gabe Hirshfeld.
It’s not hard to tell that these guys have had a good deal of formal musical training from the tasteful playing to the harmonically sophisticated compositions to nicely poetic lyrics. This is a band who stand out for their no-compromise artistry, while making music that is also appealing and melodic. The also generally keep within the usual sonic territory of bluegrass in terms of the instrumentation, though there are a couple of instances of experimentation.
The opening track, Reverie is one of those occasions with an atmospheric piano sound <<>> before the melancholy song gets under way with the sort of musical sophistication recalling the Punch Brothers. <<>>
More conventionally bluegrass is the following track So Low, with the kind of lyrics more typical of a literate singer-songwriter, a somewhat complicated love song. <<>>
The title track Smoke & Ashes has the quality of a lament. Its lyrics are cryptic, and could be interpreted as being post-apocalyptic. <<>>
More upbeat lyrically is Only Fallen Down, an attractive waltz about recovering from rough times in a relationship. <<>>
The Way It All Began is a kind of reminiscence of halcyon times, a romance in California. <<>>
Just a Dream is another piece that shows the band’s arty approach of bluegrass, its musical complexity a long way from traditional style picking. <<>>
On the other hand, a song called Red Bird Flies can evoke traditional old timey style, musically and lyrically. <<>>
The album ends with a fine piece appropriately called Last Refrain, another somewhat convoluted love song. <<>>
Smoke & Ashes the new album by the Boston area group Lonely Heartstring Band is a very good example of the current generation of bluegrass musicians who bring a good deal of sophistication to their sound, both musically – their conservatory training is quite apparent in their compositions, it’s not just fast picking – and lyrically, with the approach of a literate, poetic singer-songwriter. And their arranging is very nicely done, with a lot of subtlety. There is a little room for some picking breaks, but the music is largely ensemble playing. By the way, the album credits the compositions as being by all the members.
Our score for sound quality is a rare grade “A.” The acoustic instruments are warm and natural, as are the vocals. There are a couple of studio effects here and there, but they are rare, and the recording captures the subtlety of the group’s performance.
The Lonely Heartstring Band is definitely not your grandfather’s bluegrass group, but they still capture the acoustic spirit of the genre with their musical eclecticism and subtle but multilayered original music.
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