One of the most valuable fallback tools a reviewer has in describing a new band is comparison. This allows one to write things like “This mandolinist plays like a young Bill Monroe or maybe an old Chris Thile,” or “This singer has a tone that’s a cross between Alison Krauss and Charo.” But what do you do when a group has such an original sound that it’s truly difficult to find a valid point of comparison? In the case of The Railsplitters, you praise them to the skies, because this young quintet from Colorado has developed a sound that manages to be both startlingly original and very exciting to listen to.
The Faster It Goes is their second recording and, on a dozen tracks, they manage to take their mostly original material, using the classic instrumentation of guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and bass and give each successive song a new and distinctive quality. Banjoist Dusty Rider is the group’s principal songwriter, with mandolinist Peter Sharpe responsible for composing the two instrumental tracks, “Goosetown” and the gentle waltz “The Estuary.” But with guitarist Lauren Stovall’s lovely and idiosyncratic lead vocals out front and a deep jazzy influence in the way the band’s harmonies are layered, each song retains a unique texture that makes visiting and revisiting the CD a fun adventure.
Instrumentally, all of the bandmembers harness their considerable skills to the collective goal of making the textures of the arrangements consistently interesting. Special credit should be given to banjoist Rider, whose banjo tone and melodic inventiveness enables him to make each of his breaks delightful. Bassist Leslie Ziegler also contributes great grooves and tone, allowing the bass’s role in the band to be clearly significant even beyond some tasty solos. I should point out, if it isn’t already apparent, that this is by no means a traditional bluegrass album, even though the instrumentation is strictly acoustic. The Railsplitters bring in stylistic influences including jazz and ’50s rock (“Tell Me”), and the only tracks that would fit easily into a mainstream bluegrass playlist would be the opening track, “Tilt-A-Whirl,” and the bonus track, an imaginative rendition of “Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes.” There’s also a nice, albeit modernized, rendition of “Salt Salt Sea,” a version of the traditional ballad “The House Carpenter.” In a way, it’s a shame that this latter track is sung by one of the male singers, sadly unidentified. (Here’s hoping that bands start to recognize that if they want their recordings to reach beyond their live audience, that more precise credits would be helpful, but I digress.)
The overriding impression that The Railsplitters’ sophomore CD leaves is one of tremendous originality, using their considerable talents as writers, players, singers, and arrangers to carve out a niche of their own in the tangled and crowded world of contemporary acoustic music. Those looking for a very cool musical adventure should definitely give this band and recording a listen. (www.therailsplitters.com)HK