Old Salt Union – Old Salt Union
Compass Records – 4 August 2017
Old Salt Union seem to fall into that box marked Newgrass, which, despite all the other connotations, does suggest something exciting out of Bluegrass. I suppose that by replacing Blue with New it does leave the way open to explore both old roots and new routes at the same time.
Old Salt Union certainly do this with a mix of jazz and indie rock and a background that includes classical and hip-hop. That’s the beauty of music, ignore the boundaries and do what sounds good. This 5-piece string band fair bounce along and this album, their first on Compass Records, brings together the roads they have travelled thus far and sets them off to explore the distance.
Enough of the driving.
A short-ish album at a bit over 40 minutes, it seems even quicker when played. After each play I’m surprised that it has finished, a point emphasised by the regret that it has done so.
The opening track starts with a 20-second drone with the vocals coming in over the top, a brief break and then a jump into This Is Where I Stand. The voice belongs to the double-bass player Jesse Farrar who is perhaps the epitome of the mix of the band: jazz major at college, alt-rock family connections, sometime hip-hop producer. The other lead vocals belong to the mandolin player Justin Wallace who is first heard on Feel My Love, a letter from a weary travelling linesman to his sweetheart and is counting the days to see her again. Good old-fashioned country but the swing and the bounce are as fresh as anything.
Despite all the bounce and the upbeat, or even because of it, the ballad-style Bought And Sold stands out and is a lovely melody that would sit well in many traditions. John Brighton’s violin brings clearly to mind the links that Bluegrass and other American folk music have with the music on this side of the pond. And if anyone can tell me where I have heard that violin refrain before, I will be extremely grateful.
The biggest gamble to my mind was the inclusion of You Can Call Me Al. Such a well-known track and one that can be very limiting in interpretation but I think they pull it off, and perhaps to a younger audience it might not stand out as much as it would to those who have the original – and there are a lot of copies of Graceland out there.
There is only one instrumental on the album, which is not too much of a surprise given the variety of the vocal offerings. Flat Baroque has elements of the Spanish, played out on two mandolins of Wallace and Brighton whilst Ryan Murphey’s banjo and Rob Kindle’s guitar provide a solid rhythm section.
Tuscaloosa has the feel of Café de Paris at the start and then the driving rhythm of the tune bobs us around as we cannot resist joining in the chorus and later feel grateful that it was in the middle of the album. These sojourns out of the constraints of what may be expected continue to impress and delight with Madam Plum, the story of an affair that comes to an end. If I were to place this somewhere else, I would not be surprised to see it in a cabaret, a story where there are no winners.
After all the various journeys, we return to base with Here And Off My Mind, a good Bluegrass piece that allows all to have a bit of a go, jamming and clearly not going to stop anytime soon as the track fades out. Ten great tracks from a band that have set out their stall on this, the first of a three-album deal. They have more than enough talent and go to make it and I am already looking forward to their follow-up.