Do yourself a favor. No matter what you think of jam bands, Americana and other genres that reside at the edges of traditional bluegrass or beyond, swallow your preconceptions and listen to four songs from Sake of the Sound, the first full-length CD from Front Country.
Just four songs.
After that, my guess is many of you will want to hear more from this San Francisco-area sextet, even if every cut isn’t exactly your cup of tea.
The main reason is Melody Walker, the female vocal equivalent of Chris Stapleton or Dave Adkins. Her big voice can fill a room, but it’s not just volume. She wrestles the emotion from nearly every song, whether it’s the opener, a bluesy take on the traditional Gospel Train, or this fine CD’s closing number, Lovin’s for Fools, which demands a more plaintive approach. One thing is certain: No one will mistake Walker for Alison Krauss. Both are terrific singers, but 180 degrees apart in their approach.
The album’s bookend songs alone would leave me wanting to hear more. But for good measure, hold your opinions until you hear One Kind Word, the closest thing to a traditional bluegrass cut here, and Colorado, a grass-is-always-greener song that Walker wrote with producer Kai Welch. (In this case, the grass is literally greener, as she sings about leaving the parched brownness of Northern California for Colorado.)
The recording is solid from start to finish, inviting comparisons to a handful of other bands that have already established themselves in the new grass/Americana camp – Punch Brothers, the Infamous Stringdusters, the Hillbenders and Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen.
I’ve focused almost exclusively on Walker so far, but the five guys who join her in the band bring a lot to the table, too. Instrumentally, Front Country is inventive and well beyond solid, especially when fiddler Leif Karlstrom and guitarist/jack-of-all-trades Jacob Groopman play off of each other. And on mandolin, Adam Roszkiewicz invites favorable comparisons to Chris Thile. His approach is unpredictable but, almost always, just what the song requires.
>It’s no accident that Front Country won band contests at both Telluride and Rockygrass. As pickers, they and Jordan Klein (banjo) and Zach Sharpe (upright bass) can hold their own with just about any unit on the circuit. Groopman is no slouch in the vocal department, either, whether singing lead or harmony.
Surprisingly, though, for all of the talent, I find the project’s pair of instrumentals, the guitar-powered Daysleeper and Old Country, to be the least memorable of the 12 selections. They’re good tunes, expertly picked, but don’t pack the emotional punch or inventiveness of the other songs.
Even two of the more unusual songs are worth repeat listens. One, Glacier Song, is written and sung from the point of view of the glacier, reminiscent of a song on Tim Stafford’s recent solo project that is “sung” by a flophouse.
The other is Rock Salt & Nails. Upon first listen to this pretty conventional tale about a woman thinking about the conniving, double-crossing guy who broke her heart, I wondered where the unusual title came from. But I wondered no more when Walker, after working herself into a bit of rage offered her parting shot, saying that if she had the chance, “I’d fill up my shotgun with rock salt and nails.”
That, in songwriting jargon, is called the reveal, a surprise twist at or near the end of the song. This one is quite effective. I, for one, never saw it coming. (Perhaps I should have. Songwriter Utah Phillips is a master of this approach.)
The project, itself, is a revelation. To those who have heard Front Country, mostly in the western U.S., or the work of Walker and Groopman as a duo, the powerful work here may not be news. But for others, I’m thinking this CD will come as a pleasant surprise.