Bluegrass is alive and well throughout Europe, and much of the music crossing the pond is fresh, energetic and memorable. The latest evidence is found in the sophomore release from Sweden’s Downtown Ramblers, On the Other Side of the City.
The Ramblers have a strong pedigree – winners of Sweden’s bluegrass championship in 2007 and top European band at the European World of Bluegrass festival in 2009. The band calls its particular brand of music “Nordic urban bluegrass,” but it is clearly influenced by folk and pop.
The result, at least on the 11 songs on this desk, is entertaining and exasperating at the same time.
Entertaining because the music is everything good bluegrass is supposed to be – precise, powerful and packed with emotion. Oskar Reuter’s mandolin breaks and the elegant guitar work of Par Ojerot would lift any band, on either side of the Atlantic. And Karl Annerhult’s bass lines, both bowed and plucked, provide a solid foundation. Guest fiddlers Brittany Haas (Crooked Still) and Tim O’Brien add musical heft, too.
Exasperating because, well, every once in a while – in bluegrass as well as in the world at large – something gets lost in translation. That seems to have happened here with some of the lyrics, with awkward phrases distracting from the beauty of the underlying music. In Let Go, for instance, we hear of “skydiving people freefalling in the air,” and in Be My Baby Still we’re told, “Don’t you dare, my love. Don’t you question my skill.”
This is not necessarily the fault of the band. Blue Moon of Kentucky probably has some strange-sounding lines in Svenska, the Swedish language. And the flaw is easy to overlook on the strongest songs of this package. Best of all is I Never Planned, an up-tempo number driven by dueling breaks from Reuter and Ojerot, some mighty fine banjo work by Martin Blomberg and expressive vocals by Emelie Junsten. Nearly as good: The previously mentioned Be My Baby Still, in which the pairing of Emelie’s voice with Tim O’Brien’s overcomes the limp lyric, and I Will Follow, a minimalist masterpiece with Emelie accompanied only by Oscar on tenor guitar.
Those lucky enough to catch the Ramblers’ performance at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass a couple of years ago will find a familiar, pleasant sound here. Folks who haven’t heard of the band but love good pickin’ will also be right at home On The Other Side of the City.