Yonder Mountain String Band: The Show

By: Sarah Hagerman

As a continuation of the studio explorations on the previous album, with producer Tom Rothrock behind the boards again and Pete Thomas behind the kit for several tracks, Yonder Mountain String Band's fifth studio album The Show (released September 1 on Frog Pad – and cheers to being back on their own label) bares more rock and roll incisors in spirit and displays some surprising, unpredictable expansions. On the whole it may not shock people as much as the sonic shifts on 2006's self-titled release, yet it still might shake some folks out of their comfort zones. But whatever color grass you may like, be it "bluegrass" "progressive grass" or "jamgrass, " this band thrives in unrestricted spaces where such terminology becomes moot and only the heart remains. On The Show, they fearlessly run with that freedom.

Thomas adds some serious drum smash behind Dave Johnston's creepy "Fingerprint," which has a grungy, crackling Adam Aijala electric guitar breakdown. Thomas adds an extra-sticky thump to Ben Kaufmann's sneering "Criminal" and Jeff Austin's ode to good-riddance "Fine Excuses." This is not to say that every cut rolls its way into the semis for me. Despite Austin's fiery delivery, this take on "Steep Grade, Sharp Curves" feels overcooked. It's a complementary mood contrast to the stripped-down, almost wistful, version on the splendid Songs from the Tin Shed, Austin and Chris Castino's (The Big Wu) 2004 album, and this version does have the "cheap cocaine and neon lights" (instead of PG-rated "cheap drinks..." on Tin Shed) lyrics. But, the production here glosses over some of the instrumental work, particularly when the studio handclaps, a rather distracting effect that rarely serves any artist well, burst out. Contrast that with a more fitting use of production, namely Thomas' sticks and stones on the Austin/Benny "Burle" Galloway songwriting collaboration "Belle Parker." As much as I love the spare delicacy of the live version, that song floors me any way it's served up - neat or with a percussive chaser - and it's wonderful to have it handled with such richness here. Austin's heartworn vocal delivery seeps through something strong, and the effect is as warming as a shot of Jameson and wrenching as the morning after.

The well-captured versions of "Out of the Blue," "Casualty" and "Rain Still Falls" display the creative possibilities within a straight-up acoustic framework. "OTB" and "Casualty" also sandwich the album with two killer, ripping numbers. "OTB" is a meaty opener, keeping Austin's salt-in-the-wound rawness on the surface, while "Casualty" is a particularly potent Kaufmann lyrical showing, with some punches like, "She wonders why I'm leaving/ And I wonder why she gives me things for free," and this passage, which combines some "baby I'm leaving you" feel with darker implications in the shadows of the road ahead, with regrets left to cool on the window sills behind:

She's looking for some kind of grace
In a look that might pass on my face
She don't see it so she knows that I'll be going
But when I'm gone please understand
It's just that I'm the kind of man
That's learned that you can't stop the wind from blowing
And the only thing you'll get from me is time
And a dim awareness something's on my mind

As for the newest material, which has been creeping into setlists for a few months, some of it really throws you for a loop, the Johnston-penned "Isolate" probably more so than any others. As the center track, it really ties the album together. It's strikingly minimalist, crawling slow across the floor, capturing the female protagonist's loneliness in wrenching, claustrophobic strokes - a singular light bulb in a dark hallway, radio static, a neglected kitchen. Johnston's voice has the lowest rumble to it of the four men, and he delivers the words slowly, letting them drip. The instruments simmer underneath, all woven around a steady, metronomic pulsation. The effect is hypnotic and utterly unlike anything the band has done before. Followed by the tight, Celtic-tinged instrumental, "In the Seam," featuring Aijala and Kaufmann on bouzoukis, that darkness-to-light journey is powerfully executed as the track rips us out of a dim corner into brilliant sunshine.

Other interesting turns are the eight minute long "Honestly," which starts with Aijala's reverb-heavy vocals and shimmery instrumentation that recalls My Morning Jacket's "At Dawn" a bit. The music floats and stretches its wings before charging into a driving, grassy kick. It's a prime headphone track, with skitters and scatters snaking in the backdrop. Meanwhile, Kaufmann's "Complicated" is unapologetically poppy, but it certainly suits its writer, who can deliver earnest sincerity without sounding cloying. In the car it's got a steering wheel slapping quality that might be dangerous if you're trying to avoid speeding tickets, especially when that speedometer splintering Aijala solo kicks in. Finally, the willowy "Dreams," co-written by all four, is reminiscent of a Neil Young country cut from Harvest Moon. The lonesome harmonica, coupled with background pedal effects that sound like quietly weeping steel guitars, make it perfect for closing time echoes, as slow dancers settle into each others' shoulders, lost in a forgotten dance hall where floorboards creak and sigh beneath their feet.

It's details like these, which unfold in brighter colors with each listen, that exhibit plentiful strokes of organic matter and strangeness in The Show, keeping it bucking without losing its heart - or balls. No matter what your reaction, you'd be hard pressed to argue that it doesn't fit in nicely with the boys' 11-year modus operandi of acoustic evolution. I for one wouldn't want it any other way from YMSB.

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[Published on: 9/24/09]

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