On his first trip to the United States a few years back, Richard Cifersky said he absorbed so much about groove and feel from bluegrass musicians he jammed with at IBMA and elsewhere. He also learned, from Ron Block, about the importance of leaving space between the notes.
Fortunately, for music lovers, Cifersky was a fast learner. And, he kept coming back from the Slovak Republic for more.
One result is his new CD, Coming Back for More. It’s a solid survey of acoustic music – some bluegrass, some folky tunes and even a little pop – all fueled by Cifersky’s tasteful, expressive licks on the banjo.
The backbone of the CD is formed by six instrumentals composed by Cifersky. They’re interspersed with five songs that largely showcase the vocals of John, Jeremy and Jason Chapman and Becky Buller.
I’ll be honest, a heavy dose of instrumentals often wears on me. I’m a lyrics guy, and I’m a sucker for a good story set to music. But my attention and enthusiasm didn’t flag at all during repeated plays of this CD. Part of it, for sure, is the artful playing of Buller on the fiddle, Jeremy Chapman on mandolin and Rob Ickes on Dobro. But much of it is Cifersky’s work on the five-string. He can tell a story without words, playing aggressively at some points, seductively at others. Whoever taught him about groove and feel in his first jams in the U.S. deserves a medal.
His best instrumental stories are bookends, opening and closing the album. In the opener, Mean Dog in My Garden, the interplay of banjo and resophonic guitar brings the snarling beast to life. But the very best wordless story telling comes with the finale, Night in the Tent. This is a made-for-radio song, stuffed to the gills with energy and instrumental virtuosity. I’m not sure what happened in the tent that night, but it must have been a LOT of fun!
Another Cifersky creation, Top of the Tree almost merited mention in the same breath as the other two, but it’s one of four songs on the CD with drums, and here they seemed to get in the way. Listen after listen, I found myself distracted by the beat instead of enjoying the picking, especially from Ickes. His work is always strong. Here it is exceptional. I’d love to hear a version of this tune without the beat. (It’s only this song. The drum work from Adam Janos on the others blends nicely with the instruments and vocals.)
Cifersky’s playing is instructive on the vocal songs as well, as he lays back to give the singers plenty of room. The best of these are two songs written by Buller. The first is Magnolia, an uncommonly good song about a long, no-drama relationship. There’s not a wasted word in Buller’s lyrics and not one extra note in the accompaniment.
The second, Tellico Plains, tells a familiar story of a girl who couldn’t wait to get away from home and now aches to return. With Buller singing, though, the tale is fresh and poignant. Also worth noting is the strong title cut, written by Mark Simos and Jon Weisberger.
From start to finish, Cifersky and his guests have delivered a pleasing project. While wrapping up work in the studio, he also put together a new band back home, Bill Faster. He told my colleague John Lawless, “We try to play music for people, not keep it in the garage.”
It’s a terrific aim. Here’s hoping he keeps coming back for more.