Sticks & Stones – Opus 3 stereo-only SACD 22102, 42:26 ****:
You know how it is when you watch a foreign movie and a character in the movie is supposed to be an American, but there are little niggling things about the accent and slang that don’t ring true? That seem just the slightest bit off? Sometimes it isn’t anything obvious, but you’re left feeling a bit confused and off-balanced. Well, that was the initial feeling I had listening to “Sticks & Stones.” Now don’t get me wrong, these are talented musicians and I really liked the SACD, but when a record is labeled bluegrass and it turns out not to be, it leaves me feeling a bit confused.
So what went wrong? Well, bluegrass music is more than the core instrumentation of guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and bass, and sometimes dobro. A lot of bluegrass is hard-driving music, where the bass provides the downbeats and the mandolin does the off-beat chops. And the tempo, even when the lyrics are depressive, is upbeat and often maniacally fast. It’s almost like the music achieves a frenetic quality to balance the dark mood of the words. Frequently in “Sticks & Stones,” the music is lyrical and dreamy and the lyrics match the tone of the music perfectly. In almost every other kind of music, this would be fine, but it isn’t a good match for bluegrass, at least not in this consistency. There is also a different attitude to bluegrass lyrics. Bluegrass is more of a black-and-white world than what you find in this SACD. In the song, “We Burned the Houses to the Ground,” a line goes, “Are you the one who hurt me or is it the other way around? Maybe I hurt myself?” You will never find such ambivalence in American bluegrass music. We always know who did who wrong.
So what did they do right? The most authentic bluegrass tune is the single instrumental track, “Al Mansoury.” It nails nearly everything right and would fit into most bluegrass groups’ repertoires. So, well done there. Otherwise, let’s drop the bluegrass label of the band and its music and look at what they’ve achieved. Beautiful singing. Rebecka Sjöberg sings lead and she has a lyrical voice that carries with it a sense of vulnerability. She’s very emotive with her voice and the songs ring out with authenticity. She is the best thing about the group. The instrumental performances are competent, but not up to the fiery virtuoso standards of groups like Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder or The Del McCoury Band. Though special mention should be made of Alexander Bergström’s dobro playing – it’s very fine and tasteful.
Part of the issue with this CD is that all the tracks are original tunes written by the group—though they are all quite lovely—so the songs carry more of a Swedish character, where Sticks & Stones comes from. If they had included more traditional tunes from the bluegrass canon, they might have passed more easily for a bluegrass group, but as they are, they fit more into the contemporary genre of neo folk-rock, as represented by groups like England’s Mumford & Sons and America’s The Decemberists. Which isn’t a bad place to be. The blending of folk music into pop and rock music is where most of the creativity is happening at this time in popular music. And I suspect that Sticks & Stones knows that what they are doing isn’t really bluegrass, though it is certainly bluegrass-influenced. The first line of the first song goes, “You said this ain’t a bluegrass song, but that don’t bother me.” Bottom line, it doesn’t bother me either. “Sticks & Stones” is a very listenable disc filled with beautiful songs, pitch-perfect performances and realistic hi-res sonics. Just don’t pick it up expecting it to be bluegrass.
TrackList: Sticks & Stones; The Lilies of the Valley; Guide Me; No One But Myself to Blame; Eldsmark; Far Away; You Don’t Have To; We Burned the Houses to the Ground; Al Mansoury; Silence; People; Waiting
— Hermon Joyner
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