I really didn’t know what to expect from The .357 String Band’s new album Lightning from the North. I mean, were they going to introduce some new sound? Of course not, they ARE the new sound. Were they going to throw down the best album I’d heard in years? They already did that with their last offering, Fire & Hail.
But this album held a few surprises and distinctions from Fire & Hail, and keeps them on their track of making exceptional albums, which is possibly the hardest task when you’re trying to follow up a marquee release.
The instrumentation on this album is more diverse than their previous two. At first listen I was surprised how much fiddle there was and went looking through the liner notes to see if maybe Donnie Herron was involved in the session, but none other than banjo man Joe Huber was responsible. Huber is putting himself up there with Herron and Chris Scruggs as a premier multi-instrumentalists in the movement. Add Billy Cook’s dobro work on top of his mandolin skills, and you have many tricks to flesh a song out with.
The “hit” of the album is Derek Dunn’s “Oh, Adeline,” which is one of those songs that sticks on your bones the first time you hear it and makes you paw for the replay button. It’s been said that there are not enough love songs in the current insurgent country scene, but .357 is an exception to that rule, and “Oh, Adeline” is an exceptional song in the .357 arsenal. The other standout in the Dunn offerings was “The Harvest Is Past” which has a very 20’s-esque swingy, shuffly punch that is a good shakeup in the middle of the album.
The two aforementioned songs are also standouts for the bass work done by Rick Ness, who drives the shape of “The Harvest Is Past” and has a knack for matching walking bass lines with Dunn’s slower tunes.
For me the standout track of the album is Joe Huber’s “The Day’s Engrave.” He’s responsible for some of the more rowdy songs on the album, including the title track, but this song for me highlights Joe’s unusually thematic and thick approach to some songs; a trait that is almost vacant in bluegrass or string music, esp. in music more noted for its high octane.
This one line struck me: “Your word against mine/Your God against my everything/My fist in your eye/And I don’t care if it don’t solve a goddamn thing”. . . “All my pages are fingerstained/And though my heart is still pumpin’/Across my face . . . how the days engrave.”
Speaking of themes, the album starts off with a very Milwaukee feel, but the Southerners don’t need to grumble. After the well-done cover of Lee Fikes’ “Milwaukee, Here I come,” this thread ends, and if there was one theme throughout this album, I would say it is the weariness of road life. These guys write what they live, and live what they write. There is no effecting of voices or worn out, irrelevant old-timey terms or themes like in so much modern day “string” music. This is genuine music from genuine people.
If I were venture to guess, this album will not be named “Album of the Year” like I named their last album in 2008, though it might settle near the top. There’s not much to criticize, it’s just that the .357 String Band has settled into their sound now, and the experience of hearing them recorded is not as fresh. I have no doubt that if they keep beating the pavement like they have been, their following and fortune will only continue to grow.
Some other notes from the album: the recording engineer was Hank III’s steel player Andy Gibson, and the album was recorded in Andy’s house in Nashville. Bob Wayne also makes an appearance on Track 8 “producing.”
**UPDATE**UPDATE: Now available on CD Baby, where you can also preview all tracks: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/357stringband3.
Here’s a video of the title track from Mr. Bandana on YouTube: