july 2008

The Infamous Stringdusters
Sugar Hill Records

In the year that’s passed since the Infamous Stringdusters released their deservedly lauded (and much honored) debut album, the quintet has altered its lineup slightly, as guitarist Chris Eldridge joined up with the Punch Brothers and was replaced by (and has not lost a step with) the versatile Andy Falco. For its eponymous sophomore effort, original producer Tim Stafford of Blue Highway has yielded to the indefatigable and apparently inexhaustible Tim O’Brien, who picks up where his predecessor left off in fashioning a crisp, uncluttered sound in which no voice or instrument is less than fully defined, whether solo or in ensemble configurations. The Infamous Stringdusters is another impressive showcase for the group’s arranging, vocal artistry and sure hand with strong original and distinctive cover songs. The determined gait of banjoist Chris Pandolfi’s memorable instrumental, “Glass Elevator,” summons the spirit of an eager journey to a welcome destination in sturdy theme-and-development passages keyed by mandolinist Jesse Cobb’s fleet, cascading lines, which set the stage for equally insistent declarations from Andy Hall on dobro, Falco on guitar, Pandolfi on banjo and an inspired fiddle flight courtesy Jeremy Garrett, before Cobb returns with an energetic flurry, setting the stage for the whole bunch to bring it all home in one righteous ensemble voice. Hall contributes a lovely, aching ballad, “The Way I See You Now,” reflective but abundant in expressions of loss, regret and self-recrimination over failing to see beyond his own agenda in order to appreciate another’s endearing, loving—and irreplaceable—attributes. “Time makes us wise/Time makes us fools,” Hall and his mates cry in a soaring chorus that cuts to the bone, as the band adds a stirring, low-key ambiance to his sorrow. A tune of a different color is provided by the Bad Livers’ Danny Barnes in “Get It While You Can,” a slinky blues the band digs into with a gentle bite—and succinct, pointed solos from Garrett, Falco and Cobb—as bassist Travis Book imparts hard-won, real word wisdom in an earthy, weary tenor. A communication breakdown—“saddest story ever told,” as the lyrics say—dooms a marriage in a tale rife with overweening, booze-fueled pride as told in Garrett’s poignant, deceptively feisty and admirably literate “When Silence Is the Only Sound,” which also provides a star turn for dobroist Hall to add discursive counterpoint to the unfolding narrative. A twist on the Civil War tale from the songwriting pen of Jon Weisberger, “Three Days in July,” in which the son of a Union soldier killed at Gettysburg discovers his humanity in coming to the aid of a wounded Confederate soldier crawling from the battlefield, and a decidedly mountain-ish sprint to the close in the album’s sign-off, Hall’s “Black Rock” instrumental, are part and parcel of another flawless outing by this most infamous of sextets.—David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024