Although most American bluegrass fans are aware of the international bluegrass scene on at least a surface level, thanks to the “International” in IBMA and a few acts like the Kruger Brothers who have gained popularity here in recent years, most folks in the US probably aren’t extremely familiar with the music coming out of Germany, the Czech Republic, and other places that don’t have blue moons or cabin homes. Those who attend this year’s Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh will have at least one chance to learn more about European bluegrass, however, through the music of Sweden’s The Original Five, who have been selected as official showcase artists for the Bluegrass Ramble. The group recently released their second album, Across the Deep Blue Sea, a fourteen-track collection from Rootsy Records.
The Original Five offers music that is, for the most part, straightforward contemporary bluegrass that occasionally leans toward the progressive side of things. At times, they’re reminiscent of Balsam Range’s smooth sound, while at others they let loose into inventive, Frank Solivan-esque arrangements and instrumentation (listen to the banjo intro of their pepped-up cover of the classic country number Highwayman). All but two of the songs are band originals, displaying solid songwriting and musicianship.
Among the album’s standouts is Wrong Turn Right, a wistful, melancholy number penned by guitarist Jonas Svahn. The song takes listeners into the mind of a man driving through the night while trying to clear his mind. Another of Svahn’s originals also features a man searching for insights, though with a bit brighter outlook. I Will Find My Way is enjoyable and bouncy – and quick, clocking in at less than two minutes.
Eight Hours Still is one of the more driving songs on the album. Guided by Johan Malmberg’s banjo, it finds the hard-working singer counting down the time until he can find relief. On the more traditional-sounding side of things is Steal Your Train, an uplifting number in which the singer promises to “steal your train, put you on the right track again,” an interesting metaphor for helping out a friend. I’m Doing Fine also leans toward the traditional sound, particularly thanks to Malmberg’s banjo and fiddle playing. Written by bassist Dan Englund, it’s an upbeat number about a man who swears he’s doing fine even though the one he loves doesn’t love him back. It also contains one of the most clever and self-aware lines on the album: “I’ve been thinking about sending a letter your way, then again who the hell’s writing letters these days?”
Dobro fans should enjoy Daniel Olsson’s two original instrumentals. Both Cry Lester and Chainsaw Haircut have a dark feel and are mainly showcases for Olsson’s work, though several of the other instruments get a work out, as well. Particularly of note are Malmberg’s fiddling and Ola Persson’s mandolin playing.
The instrumentation here is the highlight of the record. Englund, Malmberg, Olsson, Persson, Svahn, and Johan Bandling Melin (guitar) are talented musicians, and it’s made even more impressive by the fact that the album was recorded live in the studio (with the exception of the fiddle playing because, as the band says, “Johan Malmberg still can’t play banjo and fiddle at the same time.”). Across the Deep Blue Sea is a solid effort, and fans of contemporary grass should enjoy it.
For more information on The Original Five, visit them online at www.theoriginalfive.se. Their new album can be purchased from several online music retailers.