Polished, Traditional Bluegrass with Deep Thoughts Underneath
If you’re in the mood for a burst of string instruments capped off by a healthy banjo and some gratifying bluegrass harmonies, then the latest release from The Infamous Stringdusters is a must-listen in a year chock-full of tempting releases.
Laws of Gravity comes ten years and seven studio albums into the band’s tenure. But despite the group’s longevity, it’s clear from the get-go that the Stringdusters bring a ton of passion and dedication to their effort. A five-piece bluegrass band is no easy sell these days but this group has a tried-and-true approach to their sound that offers plenty of traditional-sounding music with a clear-eyed and technical precision that feels timeless — plus reflective lyrics and creative melodies that give a vintage-feeling sound a fresh spin.
Some songs feel like more familiar bluegrass takes, the kind that bring to mind images of winding West Virginia hills, abandoned mining sites, and campfires lighting up the night. Album opener “Back Home” and track two “Black Elk” are both solid introductions to a sound that is cohesive and fashioned into a specific form, as well as to a band that very much approaches music as a team effort — the group comprises Andy Falco (guitar), Chris Pandolfi (banjo), Andy Hall (dobro), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle) and Travis Book (double bass).
“Gravity” is one of the album’s more modern-feeling tracks, with a fast fiddle rhythm and a soaring melody to match the subject matter about the passage of time. It’s easy to imagine this song as a country hit if it were stripped to a standard four-piece and sung by a starlet; but in the hands of the worn and self-aware Stringdusters, their message of “don’t let go,” sung repeatedly through the chorus, seems less one of romantic, youthful yearning and one more applicable to the heightened sense of aging. It stands out as one of the stronger examples of their songwriting.
The boys then play off the standard fare of musicians singing about being musicians: “A hard life / makes a good song,” they sing on “Hard Life,” a song with quick, rhythmic banjo and a few different featured vocals. It’s a down-home kind of song, a sunny afternoon song about the darker nights that have gone by. “I Run to You” keeps things on the upbeat side with some beautiful arrangements — the strings rise and fall in coordinating fashion, exemplifying the sense of togetherness this group have in their playing.
“Let Me Know” is a solid stab at what it means when lovesickness turns into confusion. Though the tune gets a little mournful, the beat is still propelled forward with quick picking. Then, “Maxwell” is a more folksy tale, with chilling harmonies to boot. It’s one of the record’s standout tracks for its traditional-sounding melodies, whining fiddles and dark, mysterious subject matter.
“Soul Searching” dabbles in romantic questions, as well as more spiritual ones, against a backdrop of great picking. So does “Vertigo,” the album’s closer that features a few funky solo spots and playful melodies, forming an edgier version of the traditional bluegrass the Stringdusters are so clearly influenced by.
While what The Infamous Stringdusters deliver isn’t for every music listener out there — especially younger fans who yearn for risk-taking and soul-baring in every measure — there’s true musicianship here. This album wouldn’t sound so polished if these players didn’t know their craft, their instuments and each other so well. Turns out, those are elements that make for one heck of a bluegrass band if they’re looking to deliver a tried-and-true sound.