Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen can’t stand still.
The band had a strong 2013, riding its Compass Records debut, On the Edge, to widespread acclaim. In its wake, Mike Munford was chosen as IBMA’s banjo player of the year and guitarist Chris Luquette won IBMA’s Momentum Award for young instrumentalists.
After that kind of success, many bands would be content to try to duplicate what worked so well the last time. Instead, Dirty Kitchen reentered the studio intent on making a record that went over the edge and into new territory—for the musicians and their fans.
The result is Cold Spell, a 10-song collection that is the most diverse project yet from the Washington, DC-area’s hottest acoustic band. It’s bluegrassy, with jazz and blues influences, country and rock, too. There’s also more of a jam-band feel than on Dirty Kitchen’s two earlier CDs.
“We have the backbone of bluegrass, but we’re building a body around the backbone that’s just a little bit different,” Solivan explained. “Things change. I think our music is a natural progression. We want to be able to progress and progress and progress. We just want to play good music.”
The most notable change, aside from the jam band approach that’s most evident on the cover of Pure Prairie League’s Country Song, is in Solivan’s vocals. He sings higher highs and lower lows here than on earlier recordings, intentionally testing his range. It’s clear — from the opening line of the first track, Say It Isn’t So to the last lines of the last song, “Missing You” — that his voice is equal to the rest of the unit’s instruments. It was strong on the last record; it’s even stronger now.
But it’s that way for just about everything you hear on Cold Spell, or on any Dirty Kitchen release, for that matter. Each project from this quartet is better than the last one.
At 8:10, Country Song won’t be getting much radio play. But it’s the perfect showcase for Solivan, Munford, Luquette and bassman Danny Booth to demonstrate the mastery of their respective instruments. Throw on a set of good headphones and treat yourself to a master class in instrumental interplay. Each instrument speaks individually, but as part of a cohesive conversation.
It’s almost as though the music is alive, growing and changing. A terrific example of the metamorphosis is Missing You, written by Solivan’s cousin John Cruz. Solivan has been hearing his cousin’s spare arrangement since the mid-1990s, so his first pass in the studio was just him, voice and guitar. The song started changing when Booth and Munford tracked their parts. The new version needed a mandolin, but Frank chose not to play it – the guitar, mandolin and vocal would be “too much me.” So he called in Sam Bush, who also added the low harmony. Then John Cowan added the top harmony, Luquette traded his guitar for an octave mandolin, Rob Ickes added Weissenborn guitar and the song was reborn.
“It morphed into something that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” Solivan explained. “Something cool happened in the studio.”
His words for how he approaches songs – “work in progress, constantly changing” – could serve as the band’s mantra as well. You never know what you’re going to hear when the band takes the stage or make a new record.
There are some touchstones, of course. Most of the songs were written by band members and their friends or relatives. There are a couple of stout instrumentals (Munford’s Yeah Man and the band’s Chief Taghkanic). Plus a carefully chosen cover.
It all fits with the band’s main rule: No filler. You won’t find Salt Creek here, or on any other Dirty Kitchen release.
What you will find are some thoughtful, well crafted originals, including the title cut, from Frank’s pen, and two stunners by his cousin, Megan McCormick – Better (Days Go By) and the previously mentioned Say It Isn’t So.
You’ll find music that expresses common themes – longing and desire, heartache and hope — in uncommon and creative ways. Music that means something. Even music that makes you think.
And when the album drops August 12, you’ll hear the end result of four friends riding down the road in the van, dissecting one just-finished show, trying to make the next show, the next CD, even better.