Mountain Tracks, volume I – Yonder Mountain String Band
Frog Pad Records
The skeptical and astute musical listener must reach a point of uncertainty
regarding the often dubiously hyperbolic commentary of the Yonder Mountain
String Band. From instrument to instrument, only one musician – guitarist
Adam Aijila – plays with serious aplomb and panache. In particular,
Jeff Austin, who has garnered serious acclaim, would never be mistaken for
Chris Thile, Matt Flinner, Mike Marshall, Bill Monroe or even Tim O' Brien,
as his rapid fire, single note filigrees often become repetitive from one
song to the next. In mandolin music, David Grisman's ability to use
cross-picking and trills add sustain to a ballad or speedy section is a
principle lost in Austin's playing. This results in moments where the
music's speed causes Austin to sound lost in a quest to pull germane
passages for rather flaccid chord changes.
[interjection: Austin, to his credit, has acknowledged his flaws. The
pertinent term used by me is hyperbolic, which conjures up media involvement
and excess: the common music listener who does not realize musical
subtleties, instead becomes overcome my media hype. When the media contends
someone has the style of Hendrix, does the writer really know the movements
within Hendrix's playing well enough to make such an argument? To call
Radiohead the new Pink Floyd? All these questions are applicable to yours
Nevertheless, the band has pioneered a bluegrass revival within the jamband context.
No band, Nickel Creek included, has reached the band's heights or
appreciation amongst many fans. What the band lacks in sheer talent usually
becomes made up for in vocal acumen and sonic adventurousness; thus making
YMSB a spitting image of John Duffey's Country Gentlemen.
According to multiple interviews, Duffey rarely cared about raw musical
talent. When playing the mandolin, Duffey would typically flounder, but he
typically acknowledged his inability and merely played off of his
inadequacies. Regarding Duffey's view of bluegrass, Tom Gray acknowledged
that "John was impressive with the mandolin in his own way, but I think he
sort of realized where his best strengths were in the vocals". Bulwarking
Gray's commentary, Mike Auldridge once said in regards to Duffey "with the
mandolin, he might drift. He could care less if he played horribly on the
Duffey, being the consummate live musician, decided to make each egregious
moment look and sound like a moment of artistic perfection. Here in lies the
similarity to YMSB, one which moves beyond covering After Midnight or
If You’re Ever In Oklahoma, two songs Duffey performed. Beyond the
lack of musical ingenuity or even exceptional compositions, the YMSB plays
with vivaciousness, with a capricious nature; making hippiegrass a commodity
which encapsulates listeners, making them forget – ala the Grateful Dead – the missed chords, erroneous jam progressions and drunken vocals. When Jeff
Austin croons Keep On Goin’ as Dave Johnston deprecates a
three-finger roll, music's honesty and integrity restores the blasphemous
un-bluegrass attempts of the young Colorado quartet.
Fans will certainly be awestruck by the fifteen minute-plus renditions of
Snow On the Pines and If You’re Ever in Oklahoma as the
quartet moves quickly from bluegrass to Grateful Dead-inspired fodder.
However, for the knowledgeable bluegrass aficionado, such moments are the
places where the band potentially misses the point (and, arguably, the
rhythm). In the middle of Snow On the Pines, Jeff Austin's attempt to
create a Garcia-esque passage falters with his down-up pick strokes as he
rest of the band falls into a rhythmic cacophony..
In the end, YMSB might be better to incessantly employ their musical talents
and realize the blissfulness of simplicity, ala John Duffey. Tracks like
Sharecropper’s Son and My Gal are the shortest but the finest
pieces on the album. When the band hits a three-part harmony, often lead by
Ben Kaufman's high and lonesome vocals, they reach into the potent sounds
emitting from the Appalachian mountains. As the YMSB matures, "Mountain
Tracks: Vol. 1" will certainly become an album to reflect upon and realize
how the band tried too hard to be a bluegrass version of the Grateful Dead
while their respective talents pulled them towards another sonic dominion.
Based on recent live performances featuring songs like Idaho, New
Directions and Peace of Mind, the band has realized their future
as a modern day Hot Rize. In time, they too might laugh at their own overtly
youthful instrumental exuberance on "Mountain Tracks, Volume I," as they
ascend to the upper pantheon of bluegrass.