The Northwest String Summit has become one of the best weekends of the summer. Not only does it provide entertainment for the weekend, it’s become a great forum to discover bands. As it seems like bands play the jamgrass loop – over to Colorado, up to Seattle, down to Oregon, and back to the Rockies – this is great for anyone who lives along that trail. The Northwest String Summit Bands are largely young and in their early creative peaks. They’re still putting out their songs that will be their classics, so when four new albums dropped in the past few months, it was cause for celebration, especially because, while NWSS is nominally a bluegrass festival, the styles of the bands vary quite a bit.
Anna Tivel – Before Machines
The second album might be the hardest one to create. The debut album lets you draw on all of the songs you’ve ever created in your life to an audience that comes in with no expectations. By the third, any audience you have is likely to be loyal enough to give you a benefit of doubt. The second puts you in a bit of a no man’s land. Will the success of the previous release be continued on a second?
Anna Tivel’s debut – under the name Anna and the Underbelly – was a tour de force of melancholy mysticism. Before Machines starts out on a different approach. “Five Dollar Bill” is Anna’s ode to how she imagines an old married couple would be if things went well. They have animals and an old house and metaphors a-plenty; she’s an weary soldier and a lucky poker player, her partner is a magic spell and a beloved old gold watch, and the relationship itself is an illuminated porch light to let you know that you’re home. In this song – as in “One Thousand and One” – guitarist Taylor Kingman provides a Neil Young-esque contrast to Tivel’s voice that always sounds like it’s on the verge of whispering, even when she’s belting out lines.
The intimacy of that voice is what gives her lines so much power. There are both incredible standalone couplets – from the surreal (and slightly terrifying), “And this is just a motel/With a bell in every room/Where they speak only in riddles/Yeah, they speak in unison,” to the plaintive, “If God ain’t home, please let me know before I kneel down.” – and stunning pieces such as the ode to the middle of the night that is “Bird and Beast,” the similar vibe of “California” that is the sound of driving in no hurry along and empty highway, and the story of Earl the painter who has so many people that he loves so much, but doesn’t trust that anyone feels that way about him.
Tivel is from northern Washington State, and you can tell that from this release. It’ll make a wonderful listen on those endless winter rainy days, coming out of melancholy, but using that to still find hope. Perhaps the mood is best defined by “Maps of the Stars,” a song also performed by Shook Twins, of whom Tivel is a regular member. Yes, Anna is home sitting and doesn’t feel quite right, she might feel more like an observer than a participant, but it’s warm and welcome instead of alienating. She promises to leave the door open for us if we ever choose to visit, and that does seem to be the light to get us through the long December night.
Absynth Quintet – Telepathy With Glowbugs
Absynth Quintet were a participant in the 2012 band competition. While they didn’t win, their branch of surreal bluegrass won them a lot of fans. Telepathy With Glowbugs is a hybrid release. Much like Razzles were both candy and gum, the Quintet are both a high energy somewhat standard bluegrass band, and something much weirder. The album is divided into thirds. Kicking off with the high energy “Wrecking Ball,” a song that makes you dance even as it sings about a doomed relationship, this release hints at a completely different direction for the band. Highlighted by the nearly 9 minute “Cellar Door,” with the infectious chorus of, “And we traveled on, on and on,” that would make a great driving mix song, while this seemed to be the work of a different band, by no means was it that of a bad one. However, “Pray for Rain” is the next track and with an opening line of, “No fleet of UFOs could wash these bloody sins away/But this bottle of Tequila will do fine,” there’s a sense that things are about to get much weirder.
Leaving any normal bluegrass structure, this song has sudden shifts in tone, spoken word parts, lyrics about aliens and satellites colliding in the night sky, and orders to turn your radio to a random station. The surreal section of the album hits its peak with “Vertical Foot.” The vocal sound effects and harmonies go way too far in being weird for weirdness’ sake (which is too bad as the sections between the bizarre vocals are really good), but it serves a useful purpose. “Dragos’s Valse” follows. A song about swimming in a frozen lake sung in a faux-Russian accent would normally be off putting, but the relative accessibility makes it surprisingly refreshing, which is consistent for a song with the chorus of, “Take off your clothes/Cut a hole in the ice/Jump in the water/It’s cold but it’s nice.”
The conflict between standard bluegrass and insanity continues with “Amaryllis,” a song that starts out with a haunting hummed section, one that could fit into an incredibly moving song, but it quickly morphs into a ditty about a talking, flying turtle. At first it feels like a bit of a loss to sacrifice that, but by the time the flute solo kicks in, it feels normal. There are plenty of beautiful songs, but only one that worships a magical terrapin.
Just when you might adjust to these songs, the album shifts once again. “Low Flying Aeroplane” and “Dizzy Moth” are more standard songs for the genre. They’re even about travel, the most bluegrassy topic ever. What makes these shifts so fascinating is that both approaches work for the Quintet. They’re a great jamming bluegrass band and their weirder material shows that they have a seemingly infinite number of musical ideas. Let others choose one or the other. Absynth Quintet stands out by being willing to carve out their own space. I don’t know if anyone was ever wondering what Ween or Captain Beefheart might sound like as a modern hippie friendly jamgrass outfit, but Absynth Quintet is about as close to an answer as we’re likely to have.
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