By Brian Heisler
It has already been a busy year for Yonder Mountain String Band, releasing the live album Mountain Tracks: Volume 4 and three months later, the band's first studio album in three years and fourth overall. While the band stays at home on the self-titled album, writing classic sing-alongs and catchy grass tunes, the addition of producer Tom Rothrock (Beck, James Blunt, Foo Fighters, Elliott Smith) brings the jam grass idea into a rock album feel. Jon Fishman once said that he never tried to make Phish concerts sound like albums, so why make albums sound like concerts? Yonder's new album approaches new areas unseen in live settings for the Boulder string band, including Pete Thomas on drums (Elvis Costello) for the first time and focusing more on the impulsive songwriting rather than the jamming. Thus, it is quite unlike anything Yonder brings to the stage every night or has put out in the past.
YMSB has been trying to hammer home the point that what we have here is the result of folk and rock as told by the keepers of new grass. And much to their liking, the album fits the bill very well. It's not Bob Dylan or Willie Nelson, but it is definitely in the right direction. Many long-time fans have feared or even damned the addition of drums to their sacred circle, but with Thomas only appearing on "How 'Bout You" and "Classic Situation," the change is fairly subtle as a whole, yet it pleasantly breaks up the 12-track album with fresh, pushing, full sounds. Rothrock and Thomas open new doors for the band, creating great variation and breaking new ground once again in what has become almost the YMSB's own genre of new grass. Like Mickey Hart adding a second drum set to the Dead or Boyd Tinsley's violin to Dave Matthews Band, Rothrock's vision and Thomas' drumming give one of our favorite string bands a new realm of canvas with which to paint. And let's be honest, if it's rock and roll you want, you simply cannot leave out the hi-hat, snare drum, toms, or bass drum.
While there is no bad track on the self-titled album and many songs are capable of hailing as favorites-to-be, the songs that seem to jump out with staying power are "I Ain't Been Myself in Years," "How 'Bout You," "East Nashville Easter," "Night Out," and especially "Troubled Mind" (yes, that's almost half the album). The lyrics of "Troubled Mind" have a classic bluegrass feeling of distress with a new age twist as shown in the chorus:
By the looks I get it seems I am the last to know
Apologetic eyes follow me everywhere I go
I swear I'm 20/20 but I never saw the signs
Now I sit alone and try to ease my troubled mind
A unique trait of YMSB's is their ability to blend their lyrics and feelings with the common people who show up to watch them every night. They might be rock stars, but their lyrics are easy for everyone to relate to such as on "Night Out": "Go to work, get through the day and try not to remember."
As always, one of the most personable and talkative bands on the circuit manages to fit in some commentary before "Just the Same," as if they didn't know they were recording. "Kick it, Adam, would you kick it?!" someone yells from the background as Adam Aijala repeats an intro guitar part. Granted, Yonder's live music keeps the fans coming, but the band's stage presence and comical anecdotes are a signature part of their show. Yonder would probably agree humor has a place in music, and many will give them the nod towards their rock and roll explorations, so I suggest an appearance of Ted Nugent on the next album. "Yonder Nugent String Band." But for now, if you don't own a Yonder album, start with this one because there is nothing missing. If you're a veteran Yonder ponderer, you should already have it, and if you don’t, you better hope you can memorize the lyrics by the time the band reaches your town, because otherwise you'll kick yourself later when you realize the potential of this new bridge of sound.
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