Bluegrass is the new black. The resurgence of the genre within the past year has been meteoric. From The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons sharing a stage with Bob Dylan at this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, to Steve Martin and his Steep Canyon Rangers catapulting to the top of the music world with the release of his 2011 solo effort “Rare Bird Alert,” and all the way to Andy Bernard from “The Office” rattling off a banjo solo every now and then, one thing is certain: it’s cool to dig bluegrass music again.
But Shepherdstown, W.Va.’s Chelsea McBee isn’t merely hopping on the latest fad’s bandwagon with her latest effort, “Put This In Your Jar (And Sip It).” She’s been carrying the bluegrass torch since 2005, when she began playing the clawhammer banjo. In fact, her first record, 2008’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” was the perfect local precursor to what ended up being the most recent boom in banjo-led, pretty-harmonies-laden music that so many hipsters have since claimed to adore.
That successfully stripped-down approach continues on McBee’s latest. Throughout all eight tracks, her Bonnie Raitt-influenced style of voice plays wonderfully into her roots-sounding mantra, all while maintaining her loyalty to a clear country music-bred background. Or, in other words, think about what it would be like if Norah Jones and Dolly Parton could have a daughter and that daughter just happened to grow up in West Virginia.
McBee’s wonderfully pure voice notwithstanding though, one problem glares through “Put This In Your Jar (And Sip It)” like a hole in a water jug, and that’s its production. Sure, the singer-songwriter displays a unique ability to craft a pretty darn good tune every now and then, but the lack of polish her latest album exudes unfortunately deprives the listener of how great some of these songs could sound.
“The Cuckoo” and “Wish” are two prime examples of how great McBee might be if she was able to spend some time in a real studio. They are the two most up-tempo tracks here, and they both create a palpable bluegrass atmosphere with down-beat hand-claps and fiercely aggressive finger pickin’. But because of the lackadaisical and low-fi production, it becomes admittedly hard to fully embrace the performances for all they could be. Good, toe-tapping throwback bluegrass? Yes. But does the energy translate into an old-fashioned raucous country party like it should? Unfortunately not.
Then, of course, there are the forgivable missteps the singer offers, not helping her cause. There isn’t one good reason “Wednesday Afternoon,” for instance, should be featured on any formidable release. The 1:10 of vocal-less fiddle seems as though it’s only there because McBee lost a drunken bet to someone and allowed whomever it was a spot on her latest record. “Daybreak Came” is another failure that proves to be the record’s worst proper song as the songwriter’s attempt at a ballad falls flat and becomes too uninteresting too quick.
But production miscues and filler tracks aren’t all that are featured on “Put This In Your Jar (And Sip It).” In fact, there are actually a few near-perfect songs that show just how talented McBee is. “Hours To Go” is a nice change-up that features a 3/4 time signature and a waltz feel the singer should consider exploring more the next time she sits down with a notebook. And “The Wind And Rain” might just be the best thing she ever puts on a record. Backed with family members, the a cappella vocals are some of the best this area has heard all year. The harmonies exude beauty and the poignant nature of the presentation would have easily fit on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, right between Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley.
McBee doesn’t fail with “Put This In Your Jar (And Sip It).” If anything, she only makes the listener want to donate to a “get her in a real studio” fund to try and see how that intriguing voice can sound with a bigger budget and better recording equipment behind it. In the meantime though, the singer’s most recent effort has promised us all one thing: it doesn’t really matter if bluegrass music maintains its popularity within the mainstream during the years to come. Because Chelsea McBee is more than likely going to be providing listeners with music worth paying attention to, regardless of what fad happens to be in style.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **