Front Country – Other Love Songs
Organic Records – 14 May 2017 (UK)
San Francisco-based Front Country continue to defy the constraints that oft define bluegrass or string band music on Other Love Songs, a follow-up to their acclaimed 2014 album For The Sake Of The Song. While still boasting a traditional instrumental line-up (mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle and guitar with occasional percussion) they push the envelope here with what they are now calling Roots Pop Music. True, the opening song (If Something Breaks) is somewhat akin to the sound they summoned up on the last album which led to quotes such the band having “the pop sensibility of Fleetwood Mac while retaining a woody, organic feel”. On much of the album however they rein this in for a set of soulful songs that, in the words of Melody Walker, “break down toxic romantic fairy tales.”
Walker, of course, is the focal point of the band. A powerful singer, gutsy and vibrant, here she blooms as a songwriter with eight of the twelve numbers written by her. She positively shines on the opening If Something Breaks as the band whisk up a radio friendly melody with some tremendous harmonies as Walker dissects the journey from young star-crossed lovers to older anxious partners with a magnificent sense of brio. Several songs convey this conflict between the perfect romance and reality. I Don’t Wanna Die Angry is a skirling example of the band’s virtuosity that opens with some delicate pizzicato before the gathering storm with Leif Karlstrom’s fiddle screeching away over some frantic string scrubbing. Undone is a real tear jerker, the band delicately tiptoeing around Walker’s impassioned vocals, weeping fiddle and dappled mandolin recalling the best of the LA Canyon session men back in the seventies as Walker slyly inserts a nod to that old junior choice favourite There’s a Hole In My Bucket as she sings, “with what shall I fix it.”
As much as Walker is the frontrunner here the band (mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz, guitarist Jacob Groopman, bassist Jeremy Darrow and five-string violinist Leif Karlstrom) make their mark with Walker’s O Heartbreaker, a song about rebuilding a relationship after an affair, given a powerful timbrous punch while Rozkiewicz offers two numbers. T.H.A.T.S is a nimble instrumental showcasing the band’s roots and Sometimes It Does is a reflective essay inspired by a Bill Monroe story that allows the band to approach Appalachia with a slight Celtic nuance. A cover of Storms On The Ocean (a traditional song first recorded by The Carter Family) is given a blustery blues makeover (“We hope it both delights and offends” say the liner notes) and Jacob Groopman sings on the cover of David Olney’s Millionaire which is the most traditional sounding song here. Given a rousing string band delivery, it harks back to the glory days of protest songs with its tale of Tammany Hall type skulduggery and is apposite for these days.
The album ends with Walker’s uplifting anthem Keep Travellin’ which again showcases the band as a well-oiled string driven thing as the words offer solace to those lovers mentioned earlier but which can also be seen as a bolster against these troubled times as she sings, “Just when it feels life is falling down and everything’s unwinding all around. Oh, honey, I’ll be there.” It’s a touching finale to a bold album.