The SteelDrivers "Reckless" (Rounder Records, 2010)
Second, and sadly final, release from the original lineup of bluegrass iconoclasts
When the SteelDrivers burst onto the bluegrass scene with their untitled début album in 2008, it was clearly the emergence of a major new talent. The combination of their ferocious instrumental attack, memorable songwriting and Chris Stapleton’s distinctive vocals produced that rare beast, the perfect bluegrass album. Thus, it is not surprisingly that many felt such great potential was being squandered when earlier this year, Stapleton announced his departure from the band to concentrate on his own songwriting career. The one consolation was that the original line-up had at least completed this second album as a last testament to their unique alchemy.
Stapleton’s vocals are undoubtedly a major contributing factor to the band’s appeal. At its most gravelly, his voice owes as much to the traditions of outlaw country, Southern rock, soul and blues as to that high lonesome sound, seeming as pioneering as John Cowan must have done when he first came to prominence with New Grass Revival. Occasionally on this release, you fear Stapleton might be starting to believe his own press and sacrificing a modicum of control for impassioned histrionics but these are rare moments and there can be no doubt that he dominates this album as thoroughly as the previous one.
This is not to ignore the contribution of the other band members. They’re a notably cohesive unit, pouring all their energy into a solid backbone for the songs and vocals. The sound is less busy than many progressive bluegrass bands but always robust and propulsive, their supremely taut dynamics emphasising the mood and drama of the songs. Melodically, the fiddle work of ubiquitous Nashville veteran Tammy Rogers is the most prominent component after the vocals and its rich, sinuous lines provide an important tonal contrast to Stapleton’s throaty bark.
Of course, all this would be worth little if it was not in the service of strong songwriting, and happily this is indeed another discipline at which the Steeldrivers excel. Whilst catchiness should not necessarily be regarded as a definitive criteria by which to judge song craft, there can be no denying that the songwriting team of Stapleton and mandolinist Mike Henderson have a talent for an infectious hook. Many of the songs follow a similar template, with the verse built around a brooding, bluesy riff before rising to soar on the chorus (see 'Peacemaker' or 'Ghosts of Mississippi') but it would only be predictable if they weren’t so damn good at it.
In comparison to their début album, some of the songs here are more mellow and melodically sophisticated, such as 'Where Rainbows Never Die' or 'Can You Run'. They may burn slower but ultimately they’re just as potent. However, with many of the tracks indulging in a longer running time and a few arguable fillers, it lacks the succinctness which gave their previous release some of its punch. But whilst as result, 'Reckless' doesn’t have quite the same impact as its predecessor, it remains another remarkable collection which may come to be seen as a memorial to what we have lost.
Date review added: Sunday, September 26, 2010
Reviewer: Kai Roberts
Related web link: Artist website