Yonder Mountain String Band CD

Known for their ability to channel a wide variety of musical idioms through their string-band instrumentation, Yonder Mountain String Band are intent on pushing their own limits. On their new album, simply titled Yonder Mountain String Band, the listener gets to experience just how far these four men have come over the past decade, and how far they're likely to go over the next one. The sky seems the limit for a band with bluegrass instruments and no willingness to play straight-up bluegrass. The acoustic style just happens to be the vehicle they've chosen to haul their myriad influences.
For their major-label debut, YMSB has spiffed up their sound in numerous ways, including their first recording featuring drums of any kind. While they've always done a remarkable job of creating plenty of rhythm without drums, it's their willingness to try new things and do what the music demands that make this such a stunning album. Having become known for their wild live shows, choice cover tunes, and lengthy onstage experimentations (due in large part to their frequent live album releases), it's obvious YMSB set out to do things much differently here. The result is their most engaging work yet, both lyrically and musically.

Mandolinist/vocalist Jeff Austin's dramatic voice gives weight to the opener "Sidewalk Stars," and from the beginning it's clear that the quartet has not been standing still. The crafty vocal harmonizing and appealing arrangement shows the mark of a mature and evolving band. Their years of performing and shared creativity have helped them find a balance between their fun-loving shows and the solid songcraft that the studio requires. For instance, there's the pounding road tune "East Nashville Easter," one of the most endearing songs they've written, which is preceded by the well-monikered "Fastball," an instrumental that whizzes by your ears as fast as it's namesake with blazing banjo rolls.

It's this yin-yang that not only makes this album work, but also enhances the band's sound as a whole. Granted, there's some good-n-twangy tunes on here, such as the country-fied "I Ain't Been Myself In Years" and the rhythmic, banjo-driven "How 'Bout You?" But there's also the odd, unexpected ambient electronic hum acting as intro for a few tunes. There's even some sounds that remind one of the late acoustic-fusion band Acoustic Syndicate, such as the propulsive "Classic Situation," which rides an insistent rock rhythm into forests of acoustic guitar and brightly expressive vocals. Rounding up the album is the longtime live favorite "Troubled Mind," which displays plenty of trademark vigor even without added drums, and the eerie "Wind's On Fire" in which a resonant front-porch vocal glides above a slowly expanding pallette of sounds, acoustic and synthetic.

Having long ago freed themselves from the traditional mold of acoustic music, Yonder Mountain String Band is obviously at a creative peak judging from the sweet sounds on this album.

--Bryan Rodgers