Anna Lynch – Anna Lynch

In the last couple of weeks I’ve written about North Of Nashville and True North.  Unwittingly, I was leading up to this week’s review–Anna Lynch.  As residents of Anchorage, Alaska, Anna and her bandmates are waaaay north of Nashville.  You’d never know that by listening to Anna’s self-titled release, though.  It has love songs and break-up songs, lots of tasty fiddle and mandolin parts, and a je ne sais quoi that seems born of a youthful fascination with honky-tonks.  It could just as easily have come from the mountains of east Tennessee.

Lyrically, Anna does show some Alaskan form with stories than have a pretty independent streak to their perspective.  Gone And Back is in some ways a female viewpoint on the male attitude  that dominates classics like Ramblin’ Man and Free Bird.  Railroad Man likewise covers that rambling spirit.  Baby Don’t Go To Work is a bluesy song about convincing someone to shirk their responsibility for the sake of love.  Not A Love Song is, of course, exactly that, but Anna confesses at the end that “I’ll never admit I’m wrong.”

Lynch cover Bandmates Peter Hamre on guitar, Garren Volper on bass, and Amanda Kerr on fiddle provide a solid background for Lynch’s lyrics.  You don’t really notice the instruments the first couple of listens, but gradually you realize how much subtle texture they’re contributing.  They play so well together, transitioning from solos to harmonies to just a presence, you picture long, sunless, winter weekends cooped up indoors with nothing to do but hone their craft.  I suspect that’s hardly the case, but it’s a musically romantic notion nonetheless.

I’ll wrap this up with my favorite verse from the disc, “boys in bars and Beer In Jars keep the blues away”.  True that, no matter how far north you are.

Nickel Creek – New Day in Boston

Although my recent interest in bluegrass has certainly been controlling lots of airtime on my  stereo, Nickel Creek bridge the gap of old and new. Somehow, they managed to sneak into the Americana/Indie Rock section of the record store in my college days and I’ve been a fan for the near decade of their existence. When I heard about their most recent record, I was weary of a “reunion” record. But this is one example of an album where a hiatus actually did the band a boatload of good.

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I’ve seen shows at the House of Blues in Boston and it’s large open size makes it far less intimate than my preferred venues. But somehow, Chris Thile, Sarah and Sean Watkins managed to make the crowd feel like they were at a small bluegrass venue. Thile regaled the crowd with storytelling and Sarah Watkins’ angelic voice filled the cavernous arena.

But the highlight of the night was the truly varied set of songs. The fourth album has given the band a catalog that can easily fill a long setlist (20 songs) with both consistent songcraft and musicianship. From the recent “A Dotted Line,” Sean Watkins’ “21st of May” was an immediate standout. His tale of the billboards announcing the impending rapture on that fateful date inspired the song kept the crowd engaged between songs. The performance was tight and the beautiful performances by Thile and Sarah Watkins to accentuate the dynamics of the song.

Old favorites “This Side,” “Somebody More Like You” and “The Lighthouse’s Tale” highlighted the emotional songwriting of the band. The songs were both engaging, tightly arranged, and showed varied songwriting growth. The instrumentals serve as the musical foil to these tunes. In fact, Thile talked about all the the different instrumental tracks and gave them thumbs up, okay, or thumbs down based on the titles that the band wrote (amusing the crowd with ease). He mentioned these as an intro to “Elephant in the Corn” (which is definitely a thumbs up for me). The tune, along with “Scotch & Chocolate” and “Smoothie Song” established that the band is not afraid to push their shows more to the technical bluegrass side.

Old favorites like “The Fox,” “When in Rome,” and “Doubting Thomas” take on new life next to new compositions like “Destination” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On.” In fact, the former set were not my favorites, but I certainly appreciated them more as I heard them performed by the newly mature Nickel Creek.

The band has managed to bring itself back to life. They can play with the best bluegrassers, write indie rock tunes, and rock the house of blues. As disappointed as I was when they went on hiatus, I am equally excited to see how they’ve grown and rekindled an even more magical synergy. Don’t miss them.

Bonus Video Playlist — Upcoming Shows in Boston

It’s an embarrassment of riches this week in Boston! As noted earlier, we’re kicking things off with Lydia Loveless and the Old 97′s tonight.

Tuesday we’ve got the long overdue return of Matthew Ryan (Atwood’s Tavern).

Thursday we’ve got the Curtis Mayflower (Atwood’s Tavern) and The Suitcase Junket (house concert).

Friday is the equally long overdue return of the Bottle Rockets (Johnny D’s).

Saturday is a great double bill with Mia Dyson and Will Dailey (Davis Square Theater) plus Twangville fave Mark Erelli with Della Mae and others (Middle East). If that weren’t enough, Saturday also has the Silks bringing their rock show to town (at Atwood’s Tavern, are you seeing a trend?).

This is, of course, just a sampling of the shows around town this week. I’m excited and tired just thinking about it.

For those not in Boston — and even those who are — here’s a video playlist to get you through the day.

True North – Elsebound

For the first few decades of bluegrass music, it tended to lean toward the high, lonesome sound invented by Bill Monroe, or an old-timey vibe like the Carter Family or the Osborne Brothers.  Then in the 70′s a few artists emerged that pushed the boundaries of the genre; John Hartford, New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, to name a few.  Hot Rize in particular managed to bring a relatively polished sound that was more listenable to an audience less familiar with back roads twang.  Listening to the latest album from True North I got that same feeling.  Call Elsebound a gateway drug to hard bluegrass music.

Primary songwriter Kristen Grainger also takes the lead on vocals for much of the album.  Her clear, warm voice brings the same kind of richness and familiarity to songs like Twist In the Wind and Hard Place that have made Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss so popular.  Vocally, the crowning achievement of the disc is One Voice.  Starting with just Grainger and a simple ukelele accompaniment the song builds by adding each member of the group until you get the full 4-part harmony and instrumentation, before finishing with just the one voice.  Showing her versatility, she also belts out a fine, fine traditional-sounding number with Shiny Black Shoes.

Another one of the appeals of Elsebound is that it keeps you listening with not just the virtuosity within individual songs, but also the variety across the album.  In addition to the typical bluegrass elements, the band veers into a jazzy vein with Come And See What I Got For You.  They cover a catchy Don Henry tune, BFD, that’s an ode to TLA’s.  Rattlin’ Bones, a Shane Nicholson/Kasey Chambers composition, is kind of hard to describe, but when I checked out the original I certainly like this interpretation better.  They even take some inspiration from 70′s California country rock sound with The Poet And the Carpenter.

Elsebound-Final-Cover-350x350 From the first time I listened to Elsebound I had the feeling that I’d heard it before.  And yet most of the album is new songs from Grainger, so it just seems that way.  The end effect, then, is one of presenting not just what bluegrass is, but what it can be.

Monday Morning Video: Chatham County Line

Twangville Jeff and I caught Chatham County Line last week. Ya gotta appreciate a bluegrass band from North Carolina who chose to celebrate their cd release day at, as they aptly described it, “a basement in Cambridge, MA.” I, for one, am damn glad that they did. It was my first time seeing the quartet and they sure did impress. Here’s a favorite from their brand new release.