By: Eric Liebetrau
More than four years after their last studio album, The Good Life, Railroad Earth returns with Amen Corner (out June 10 on SCI Fidelity), a natural next step for a band that continues to make its mark at the nexus of homegrown bluegrass, country and folk - what some refer to as Americana.
Recorded at Lone Croft, a 300-year-old farmhouse in rural New Jersey, this album projects a homey, lived-in feel similar to old Garcia/Grisman collaborations. Longtime RRE engineer Mike Partridge, who turned in great work on the 2006 live album Elko, is back with a clean, crisp production that seamlessly blends the instruments while maintaining the distinct sound of each voice. "Been Down This Road" opens the album in upbeat, sure-handed fashion, Todd Sheaffer's lyrics - "I've been down that road before/ I don't go there anymore" - evoking a sense of hard-won wisdom, a thematic thread on many tracks. The first single, "Hard Livin'," also reflects on the past while looking to the future, and the low-end horn accents perfectly complement the song and the band's positive, open-minded attitude.
"Bringin' My Baby Back Home" goes straight to the heart of the bluegrass tradition with a classic, no-frills, hill-country delivery, echoed later on the instrumental "Lonecroft Ramble." The pleasing hook duel between the mandolin and fiddle in "The Forecast" leads into "Right In Tune," a relaxed, airy ballad equating contentment in a relationship to being in tune while playing music. The pace jumps back up on "Waggin' the Dog," which should please fans of old-school RRE favorites like "Warhead Boogie" and "Long Way to Go." Tighter and more patient than fellow travelers Yonder Mountain String Band, RRE rarely let the music run away, but they always let it breathe.
The sweet, introspective "L'il Bit o' Me" opens the second half and tells the story of a newborn's awakening to the world. For evidence of the band's attention to detail and timing, listen carefully for the well-placed bells in the mix. "Crossing the Gap," which may be the best track, hinges on a standard bluegrass structure but features the vocals of violinist Tim Carbone, which imbue the track with a classic country feel. That vibe also drives "You Never Know," an ambling shuffle that hearkens back to the rawer, loose-limbed days of The Black Bear Sessions (2001) and Bird in a House (2002), and should also appeal to fans of Jerry Garcia's solo acoustic work.
It's always great to see a band improve with each successive album, and Railroad Earth has done just that. Probably their most complete, coherent record, Amen Corner is a fitting release for them at this point in their career, and it bodes well for what is hopefully a long, fruitful future.
JamBase | Across The Tracks
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