HILLBENDERS, CAN YOU HEAR ME?
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Newgrass Revival left a significant mark behind them in their two decades of existence, influencing numerous groups. Their combination of complex arrangements, impassioned vocals, instrumental virtuosity, and pop sensibility in a bluegrass context set a high standard for progressive acoustic bands to follow.
The Hillbenders, the latest discovery by Compass Records, has built upon this foundation with twelve very impressive tracks on their second CD. With three alternating lead singers of equal strength in Nolan Lawrence, Jim Rea, and Mark Cassidy, and punctuated by the dazzling interplay of Cassidy’s banjo and Chad Graves’ resonator guitar, Can You Hear Me? skillfully mixes originals and unique covers. Their strong rock influences are evident throughout each song, not just in their version of the ’80s alternative hit ‘Talking In Your Sleep.” There’s a take-no-prisoners approach throughout, with daring twists and turns on each arrangement. Even their approach to the one relatively familiar song on the album, Mick Hanly’s oft-covered “Past The Point Of Rescue,” distinctively segues from Cassidy’s lead vocal to a flamboyant vocal coda by Lawrence that channels equal parts John Cowan and Raul Malo.
What’s also encouraging about the Hillbenders’ take on newgrass is that their songs tell good stories. Guitarist Jim Rea’s “Spinning In Circles” spins parallel stories of creativity and frustration, while a number of their other songs manage to take fresh approaches to tales of relationships and wanderlust. That even extends to Rea’s over-the-top tale of meteorological mischief, “Heartache Thunderstorm,” and the righteously vengeful murder ballad “Broken Promises.”
This is a band that has too many strengths not to succeed. Given their gifts in writing, arranging, vocals, and picking, it’s hard to imagine the Hillbenders not influencing another forthcoming generation of newgrassers themselves. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)HK