Fundamentally speaking, Clearspring’s formula for bluegrass is flawless. Downtrodden tales of drinking, heartbreak and trouble. Mandolin, vocals, banjos, a stand-up bass. Enough versatility to make sure their tunes never become monotonous despite the limited bounds that crafting interesting bluegrass music almost always provide. Heck, they even have the look down — one glance at the album cover of their latest 12-song set, “Hard Times Comin,'” proves as much.
So, what’s the problem? Honestly — if this Frederickquartet clearly know their way around some Punch Brothers authenticity and the type of pop that’s best showcased in the mainstream by Mumford and all his sons, what makes their most recent offering even slightly unbearable?
Well, in a word, vocals. For the most part, they aren’t very good. And that’s ironic when you consider how heavily their chosen genre has relied on the strength of that very element within its history and evolution. And it’s also something that makes Clearspring’s music both exhilarating and cringe-worthy.
We’ll start with the former. If nothing else, their presentation is crafted brilliantly as each song never overstays its welcome. With only one track eclipsing the four-minute mark, the quartet’s quick approach to song-writing makes for a light listen and sometimes even accentuates the four-piece’s strengths. “Rock Bottom,” for instance, is a wonderful romp through an open field in Tennessee, an abundance of tall grass painting the scenery. The tempo is quick and fierce and the “Rock bottom/ Rock bottom/ I hit rock bottom when I fell in love with you” refrain is a memorable moment of countrified clarity.
“Forty Years of Trouble” and “Wild Bill Jones” also keep the pickin’ comin’ with fluidity and texture that is essential to this specific brand. “Trouble” proves to be a fantastic way to begin this 12-track journey through the South, its bare-bones prelude a perfect poke at poignancy. “Jones,” meanwhile, highlights Eric Knowles’ vocal chops sparingly on top of an intricate hike up hills filled with banjos and mandolins. The shadowy effects on his voice somehow work, too, while the group walks right up to the line of over-production before having the good sense to not stumble over it.
Oh, but about that good sense …
Unfortunately, the lack of such plays an important role in the value of passages throughout a portion of these 12 songs. It’s clear that the quartet’s Achilles’ heel is harmony, and while there are some tracks that admittedly receive a pass for sparse failed vocal musings, there is no hiding the inadequacies when they are front and center. Case in point: “Let’s Be Sweethearts Again.” Sure, the sentiment is there, and yes, the balladry is potent. But as singer Jason Hannan goes for those high notes, one can envision a crowd of heads crunching their faces in both disgust and embarrassment. Even worse is the track’s last 10 seconds as the group goes for a vocal finale akin to Fourth of July fireworks. The result, however, is a water-soaked sparkler.
The same bit of torture (and that’s not too strong a word) creeps in on album-closer “Wicked Path of Sin.” Here, the frustration overshadows the song’s good intention (which, by the way, is an admirable Statler Brothers rip-off from yesteryear, for those who may be wondering). And while such would be beyond impressive if these guys could actually pull off the Grand Ole Opry-ness of it all, the voices eventually devolve into a keyless, pitchy combination of force and failure. It’s no secret that you don’t have to be Barbra Streisand to successfully create a country and western-tinged bluegrass sound, but that doesn’t mean you should be comparable to a cast-off from “American Idol” auditions. This stuff takes soul — as the Statler Brothers have proven for so many years, mind you — and if you don’t have it, you simply have to accept that you don’t have it. The last thing a group can afford in this genre is a spotlight on its deficiencies, considering how minimal the music usually is. With these moments, this bluegrass outfit makes sure the bulbs are shiny and new.
And it’s a shame because there is some true, big-time talent that can be found in all of “Hard Times Comin.'” Instrumentally, these four men go beyond the town of capable and wind up somewhere near the city of exceptional. As luck would have it, though, Clearspring happens to be concentrated on setting up shop somewhere along the countryside. And as anyone who has been out on a farm in the middle of nowhere can tell you, sometimes those city-tested lessons translate into zilch when your biggest priority is trying to cultivate a widespread and prosperous garden.
There is a lesson these 12-songs could teach Clearspring as the group moves forward, though, and that lesson is simple: Sometimes it takes a few summers to finally see your first edible tomato peak through the dirt. And with any luck, these guys will remain hungry enough to make sure that their soil stays rich while they take some time to figure out how to turn on the tractor. Because if they do — and granted, that’s a big if — they may never have to worry about going without food ever again.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***