Branches on the tree of music will never stop growing. As soon as someone pioneers a new sound, five others have radiated from it, creating what they see as their own unique niche, slightly different form their predecessors. Unfortunately, such constant divergence creates an intricate web of music where nothing is original and no two sounds can be grouped exclusively under one heading. This has lead to bands describing themselves with more stylistic differences than those listed at a record store. "Rock infused funk with folk and indie influences." What the hell is that? You think I jest, but bands are like politicians- they want to please everyone so they make themselves non-committal. Consequently, their music lacks backbone. It lacks strength. Not Trampled By Turtles. On their latest effort Duluth, it is clear that these 5 young men have been influenced by an array of styles- punk, rock country and folk to name a few. But this music is truly bluegrass. It is modern, but it descended directly from the harmonies of yesteryear. This is music with a story that's sad to hear. This is music that was written from the vantage point of somebody's back porch in Middle America. Yeah, that view has grown to encompass more global topics, but this is the music of Bill Monroe, Del McCoury and Earl Scruggs. Its bluegrass with attitude and its music that's not afraid to blaze a singular path.
As any album assembled before the day of the single-song-download age would have had to do, Duluth not only tells the individual story within each song, it tells a collective story of the band and the view inside their collaborative heads at the time these songs were written, recorded and artistically arranged from 1 to 12.
Duluth begins with 3 tracks that assure you what Dave Simmonet lacks in vocal range, he more than makes up for with vocal passion. In the vein of singers like Brad Barr, Jim James and Jeff Mangum, Simmonet is the master of his limited vocal instrument, getting every bit of gusto he can from inside. A singer like this may turn off some people, but what you will hear, if you give it a chance, is a voice tailor-made for bluegrass.
The albums opening cut paints a picture of a cold man during a cold time of year and the melodic harmonies within each chorus assure the listener that these voices belong together. And yet, from the playful Eastern Bloc outtake at the beginning of the song, you know these boys don't take themselves too seriously. Still, the instrumental playing is far-reaching and flawless.
The harmonic congruence and finger ferocity become clearer over the songs next few tracks, with devastating finger picking by Dave Carroll on the banjo and Eric Barry on the mandolin that will set your ears ablaze by the end of 'White Noise' and reignite the inferno in 'The Darkness and The Light'. A pickers delight, the aptly named instrumental 'Truck' rolls over you and brings the opening third of the album to a close.
In its second act, the album changes from its introductory mode to the exposition of individual highlights. Whether it's the poetic politics of Simmonet on 'Empire' or the haunting bass from Tim Saxhaug on 'Methodism in America', the incredibly consistent play of fiddle virtuoso Ryan Young or just the stories of love held too tightly, a band growing together and hypocrisy in religion, the listener is able to see the individual men that make this a true band. 'Pipe Knot' is a highlight of the album, although it strays from the album's path more than any of its other songs, rooting itself in the sounds of an Irish symphony during the Victorian empire. And yet, the playing of Carroll, Young and Barry make it all-American as they bring it home with still more mind-bending technical prowess.
As the album draws to a close, the songs vary more and more, loosing the structural integrity of the album thus far. Perhaps that is what the band intended as its indecipherable message may be the message after all. These boys are just having a laugh at the seriousness of it all, as 'Think It Over' and Trampled By Turtles upbeat rendition of the classic 'Shenandoah' may very well suggest. The album closes with 'Hammock Swinging", an instrumental encore with slap-happy banjo and extreme picking where the band truly cuts loose.
Individually, the boys of Trampled By Turtles are all great players, worthy of sharing the stage with anyone. Collectively in the studio, they rival Nickel Creek with their ability to elicit emotion within the confines of precise playing. Their songs have a timeless feel, like all good bluegrass should. But just like there strictly bluegrass predecessors, Trampled By Turtles' music appeals to more than just bluegrass fans, making Duluth a necessity for anyone who appreciates good music.