The Railsplitters are a quintet (Lauren Stovall – vocals; Dusty Rider [seriously, is there a cooler name in roots music tight now?] – Banjo; Peter Sharpe – Mandolin; Leslie Ziegler – upright Bass and Christine King – Fiddle) who got together in 2012. The Faster It Goes is their second album, the result of increased confidence following their eponymous debut and some high profile awards. They write collaboratively. They all sing. The result is tremendous.
The PR calls their output ‘…music for the open road, the open dance floor, and open ears – music of the American West, made for all.’ They call it Bluegrass, but truthfully, that’s a genre and a setting that only describes the beginning of this band’s journey. Based in Boulder, Colorado, they’re now several hundred miles down the interstate, ignoring the sat-nav, and abandoning the restrictions placed on them by labels. They might use traditional instrumentation, but The Railsplitters are anything but trad., preferring to spin new shapes from old stories.
Tilt-a-Whirl’s sprightly harmony vocal intro and virtuoso banjo and fiddle leads are good indicators that convention is (largely) about to be ignored. Stovall has a wonderful voice, full of emotion with a deliciously sexy and soft vibrato in the held notes, a graceful addition to Salt Salt Sea and It’s A Little Late, tracks that fully explore the boundaries of Bluegrass. The former rolls along on a nicely rhythmic, understated melody with occasional accents. It breaks towards the end with the first of several clever tempo changes the band employs throughout the album. It’s A Little Late is Stax circa ’62 transported to the Rockies. Swap the mountain instruments for the M.G.’s and Carla Thomas for Stovall and Memphis hoves into view – it’s a brilliant song and the best reinterpretation of America’s home-grown music I’ve heard in quite a while.
That opening trio will either have you up and jumping or scratching your head (or both), impressed with the musicality and melody but forced out of your comfort zone. Nothing else on the album comes close to their barrier-breaking MO, but a lot comes close. You glides on a fine fiddle undercurrent, Rider’s banjo going full pelt and the tune enhanced by fine backing vocals. The choppy riff of Planted On The Ground allows the lead vocal space and hosts another fine tempo change that introduces a male vocal. When they break the song down for a second time, it’s a dreamy confection of 70s songwriter harmony and far-out melody suggesting the ingestion of strange tobacco alternatives (suggesting, not inferring…). Met That Day retreats from the experimental a little, the separation of loved ones dealt with grace and humility ‘Our little boy is now two / And he keeps asking after you’ – Stovall’s wonderfully empathic vocal raises goose bumps.
Tell Me is an old-school ballad which builds its message into an irresistible finale, notionally via a blues motif but with equal amounts of swing and a punchy ending that had me pressing repeat several times just to enjoy the anticipation of its arrival. Danger features ‘head down, see you at the end’ banjo but still manages to squeeze in an acoustic break that just allows you to catch your breath. By contrast, the wistful Seasons is a gorgeous, almost English folk ending to a set of songs that bend your expectations into Escher-like flights of fantasy and illusion, all the while holding tight to the core tenets of quality song-writing. Throw in a couple of easy-on-the-ear instrumentals and a ‘bonus song’ that’s more Bluegrass than any of its predecessors and you have an album that invites no excuse should it miss your end-of-year best of lists. Here’s to ignoring the road signs.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
UK Release 6th July 2015