Along the softer edges of bluegrass, where smooth contemporary melodies merge with a folkier, singer-songwriter sensibility, lies Oregon-based band True North. The group’s music is largely gentle and contemplative, guided by the lyrics and lead vocals of Kristen Grainger, an accomplished songwriter whose songs have received recognition by Merlefest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, the IMEA Awards, and the Telluride Troubadour contest. Their latest album, Elsebound, is a mostly original, folk-leaning project with hints of jazz, blues, and yes, a bit of bluegrass.
The album largely revolves around Grainger’s expressive lead vocals, often performed in a soft, singer-songwriter style, set to melodic guitar lines. Banjo, bass, mandolin, mandola, and ukulele appear throughout the album – though not always together – along with cello and percussion from guest musicians. Eight of the thirteen songs come from Grainger’s pen, while the rest are pulled from well-known folk and Americana singer-songwriters.
The opening track, Hard Place, is a meditation on a difficult relationship. The combination of cello from guest Peter Miller and “mountain banjo” from Dan Wetzel creates an interesting, atmospheric feel for the song. The mood shifts on the next number, Hayes Carll’s It’s a Shame. In contrast to Carll’s rougher, Texas country style, True North’s reading of this song is upbeat and toe-tapping, an enjoyable slice of pop-grass that tells of a missed chance at love. This number is easily one of the album’s highlights.
Twist in the Wind is a well-written number from Grainger with a nod to the popular bluegrass theme of figuring out if the one you love still loves you. It’s more stripped down than the usual bluegrass song, but features cheerful mandolin from Wetzel throughout. Shiny Black Shoes is probably the most purely bluegrass song on the album, guided by Dale Adkins’ five-string banjo and telling the story of a man who is greeted by evidence of an unwelcome visitor when he returns home from working in another county. The lyrics and rhymes are clever and flow nicely. Particularly enjoyable is the verse in which the singer tries to figure out who the titular shoes belong to: “They don’t belong to a farmer, they don’t belong to a miner. But that traveling salesman from South Carolina… seems like I remember his shiny black shoes.”
The Poet and the Carpenter shifts gears into a spacey, bluesy groove with lyrics seemingly influenced by 1970s folk-rock. It’s a fun, enjoyable listen, but lines like “the elephant’s out in the elephant house, and the elephant needs to go free” might be a bit confusing to some listeners. Other sounds explored on the disc are the ’90s indie-pop feel of Angelfish and the flirty, swingy ukulele of Come and See What I Got for You. Rattlin’ Bones has a grungy, alt-country vibe that is fairly similar to the original cut by writers Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson.
Fair warning to listeners who are fairly strict on their definition of bluegrass: True North is not likely a band you would consider part of the genre. However, Elsebound is still a fine album. Grainger offers solid original writing, and both her vocals and the harmonies and occasional lead from other band members are smooth and warm. Though the instrumentation is not the true focus of the album, with few instrumental breaks, the musicians here seem to work together well – unsurprisingly, perhaps, as the band consists of two married couples. Fans of the rootsy singer-songwriter sound should enjoy this album.
For more information on True North, visit their website at www.truenorthband.com. Elsebound can be purchased from several online music retailers.