We’ve written a good bit about Mile Twelve in recent months. The Boston-based group has been making noise in bluegrass with their virtuosic approach to the music, clever songwriting and arrangements, a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude, and a youthful energy that appeals to all age groups. All of that shows on their new release, Onwards, their first full-length album, with all but two of the twelve tracks being band originals.
Coming from various locations along the east coast of the US – and the bluegrass hotbed of New Zealand – the band formed in Boston where three of the five had been studying at Berklee. Often when you get a bunch of music school kids, the sound can be a little heady, lacking the grit and authenticity we associate with traditional bluegrass. But not with this bunch. They know the legacy that came before them, and give it the due deference it deserves.
You hear the way they manage the respect for tradition, with the desire for idiosyncrasy so common with young artists, in the opening title track. It kicks off with a driving bluegrass tempo, only to change meter and throw in a few crooked measures during the first verse and chorus. They way they pull it off, however, doesn’t feel jagged or disconcerting, and you could clap along all the way through without missing a beat. It’s almost Shakespearean, the way they manage to appeal to the educated musician and the drunken festival dancer at the same time.
The album credits all the originals as written by Mile Twelve, but banjo picker BB Bowness told me earlier this summer that they don’t so much co-write as co-edit. She used the example of Onwards, where bassist Nate Sabat wrote the melody and a couple of verses, and guitarist Evan Murphy added a couple of new verses. Then, as a band, they all made suggestions for further edits and added the time signature changes.
She said that a couple, like Call My Soul, were presented to the band almost fully formed. It’s one Murphy wrote about attending his grandfather’s funeral, and coming to the realization that one day, it will be him going into the ground. A deeply reflective and introspective song, Evan sings it with conviction. Another that came in mostly complete was Nate’s Soldiers and Sailors, which he sings as well. Equally contemplative, this three quarter time ballad tells of his recognition of permanent things while walking through his native New York, and coming upon a memorial to those lost at war.
But it’s not all downers and moody songs! Sunny Side Of Town, contributed by Geoff Bartley, gives the band a chance to try on their Del McCoury shoes for a bluesy romp, and The Day You Left delivers a honky-tonk shuffle on a classic love lost, go-to-hell song. Ace Of Hearts is a rip-roaring number that allows all the members to stretch out on their solos. It came to the band from Carson Chamberlain, Ron Moore, and William Lonnie Wilson, and was a major hit with the audience when I saw them recently at the 2017 IBMA World Of Bluegrass convention.
A pair of instrumentals are included, Wickwire, a modern pentatonic banjo tune, and Old Tom, featuring the group’s newest member, David Benedict, on mandolin with a new, old time sound.
To my ear, the album’s masterpiece is The Margaret Keene, a band effort about a sailing adventure, with a distaff twist. The song’s narrator tells of going out to sea with his true love, only to discover that he never wants to see a ship again, while she is mesmerized by the call of the ocean and sees her life on the waves. It’s a deeply moving story, with a Celtic feel well-suited to Boston’s Irish heritage.
The band tackles the swing vibe on You Don’t Even Know It Yet, sung as a ladies duet with Bowness and fiddler Brownyn Keith-Hynes, and the record closes with Settle Down Blues, a Jimmy Rodgers style blue yodel song about true love.
Kudos to Mile Twelve for creating such a deep and nuanced effort. Many young groups are happy just to get something out to showcase their sound, but here they have taken the time to craft some memorable songs, and arranged them to perfectly fit their prodigious abilities. Each is a skillful instrumentalist, and while none of the lead singers has a stereotypically bluegrass voice, they deliver the songs sincerely and effectively. In truth, the contemporary vocal style is likely to be even more engaging for younger audiences and those new to the music.
Onwards is a triumph. Well done, Mile Twelve!