After ten years together, The Hillbenders should have a pretty good idea of what they want to accomplish as a band. But given that this CD (their fourth overall) is their first since their unique tribute to The Who’s rock opera Tommyin 2015, it makes sense for them to circle the wagons a bit and draw on mostly original material.
There are a handful of covers, including the opening track “Hey Boys,” written by Randle Chowning, formerly of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. They do an uptempo version of a song by the group MGMT called “Kids,” which they balance adeptly by following it with an original by guitarist Jim Rea about a wayward youth gone wrong (“Wrong Way.”) There’s also a rendition of the country cornball classic by Johnny Mullins, “Don’t Look At Me,” sung by resonator guitarist Chad Graves and a posthumous collaboration of sorts on “I’ve Got A Mind To Move On,” set to music by Rea from published lyrics by John Hartford.
Yet, what gives the album its strength is the collective creativity of the band, with each musician represented on vocals and songwriting. The result is a wide-ranging album showcasing the diverse talents of the group. The focus shifts from Mark Cassidy’s dazzling melodic-style banjo on the Hartford song to mandolinist Nolan Lawrence’s rock-and-roll energy of his vocal on “Wishing Well” to bassist Gary Rea’s gentle singing on the album’s closer, his own “Daisy Chain” (one of two tracks augmented by Graves’ lap steel guitar.)
It’s got to be challenging to follow a successful, but atypical recording as a band. The Hillbenders have taken a prudent approach by focusing on what makes them unique, both individually and collectively. Producer Eric Uglum has done a fine job of capturing the energy and originality of this quintet. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)HK