Taking a Listen
STEEP CANYON RANGERS — Deep In the Shade
You probably don’t need comedian-banjoist Steve Martin’s endorsement to know that the Steep Canyon Rangers are one of the most gifted acts in all of bluegrass, but it does help when one of the most recognizable faces in entertainment gives the nod. Martin sings the praises of the Rangers, the backing band for his recent bluegrass tour, in the liner notes of their recent release Deep In the Shade and it’s well deserved. The album is a rich tapestry of carefully arranged strings and gentle harmonies in the form of 12 great songs, 10 of which are original. Still, the album doesn’t do the Rangers proper justice. It’s taken the bluegrass world decades to embrace the overt show of enthusiasm for fear of offending the deities of its rigid tradition, but Deep In the Shade takes a step back in its passion. No matter how crystal clear Woody Platt’s voice sounds and no matter how perfect every note is executed, the music tends to mosey along without the same verve that the band emits onstage. Opener “Have Mercy” is one of several tracks deeply rooted in traditionalist bluegrass that almost seem to scream for a kick in the pants. “Sylvie” is an a capella number that captures the group’s near-perfect harmonies and “There Ain’t No Easy Street” comes along with its foot-tapping banjo line to breath more life into the record, but no matter how much Deep In the Shade might please the technicallyminded, it still begs for something more.
THE OLD CEREMONY — Walk on Thin Air
With it’s name borrowed from a Leonard Cohen masterpiece, Durham’s The Old Ceremony (www.theoldceremony.com) is carving out a niche of dotingly arranged indie rock with near-poetic songwriting. The band succeeds in keeping its orchestration tasteful with it’s third release, Walk On Thin Air, and never venturing into “progressive” territory, a dirty word in the minds of many indie-rock artists. This album marks a slight change in direction from their previous, as it seems to be missing a song with the same joie de vivre as “Papers In Order.” Even at its most spirited, it seems to struggle within its own earnest sense of melancholy to find the optimism it believes to be there. There’s a feeling that “Plate Tectonics” was meant to be that track, but the similarly striking nature of its chorus lends to a less sanguine response. Coincidentally, the album is at its best when it embraces its inherent darkness and shows it off with a devious grin. “The Disappear” has the sultry and noir-ish feel of a pulpy detective novel. The muffled drum snaps and pulsating vibraphone work in perfect harmony with Haskins’ reverbed voice and the forlorn strings, but that direction is all but abandoned from that point forward in favor of hit and miss stabs at the sensitive songwriter formula. Trouble is, Haskins all too often sounds trite and superficial in his attempts to relate his deepest feelings thanks to his unwillingness to relinquish attempts at the Cohenesque bravado for which he strives and never quite attains.