Ohhhh, Americana. Strings. Banjos. Weird instruments. Earnest voices. The word “sorrow.” Especially in this part of Maryland, where the sounds of Appalachia echo into the wooded areas that guard metropolitan communities. Like it or not, this is a place where you can walk into a bar and hear yet another version of “Bad Moon Rising” before heading down the street to find a bluegrass jam far more interesting than anything John Fogerty ever hoped to be.
Lydia Sylvia knows a bit about Americana. Having played with the Martin Family Band, she’s a veteran of the sounds and stories that embody country living. Armed with a feathery voice and a plucky banjo, Sylvia is fearless in her musical approaches. Sure, she might sound 15 years younger than she actually is, but her sheer versatility packs more punch than any age restriction might hope to prohibit.
Such is why “Chasing The Ghost,” Sylvia’s latest 15-track set, never gets boring: Before allowing herself to settle into the atypical tropes that modern bluegrass often embodies, she switches up tone and feel well enough to keep every ear in tune. The differences between “Dark Holler Blues” and “Three A.M.” are many, the former providing a lightning-fast journey through the depths of emotion a banjo often provides while the latter passing as your new favorite indie rock acoustic ballad. That chameleon quality pays dividends for the singer throughout each turn of “Ghost.”
The best moments come when that childlike voice of hers pierces through. The opening title track, a mournful little ditty, is accentuated by the haunting nature of such an innocent voice reciting such sad words. The upper register that’s represented most often throughout these songs takes a back seat to Sylvia’s dark, macabre intonations ultimately used as the sonic equivalent of a mannequin’s stare. By the time she gets to the a cappella “Hillsville John Henry” near the end of the set, the intrigue is at an all-time high.
Even the instrumentals hold their own. “Liza Jane,” about two minutes of jig-fueled fun, is led by Dirk Powell’s fiery fiddle lighting the way for Sylvia’s tasteful five-string. Put that on a loop, empty out a barn, and have yourself a night. “Twin Sisters,” meanwhile, doesn’t have to use words to create its dour atmosphere, its shadowy string work adding all the vibe that’s needed to get its point across. The same can be said for the sprawling “Cranberry Medley,” which takes listeners on a journey through the darkness before winding up at an end light that would make any Steep Canyon Ranger proud.p:BCR Body Copy RR
The singer even sells the blues better than you might imagine. “Hobo Blues” is a neat twist on a traditional formula, Sylvia’s banjo serving as the only supporting character to her weirdly affecting voice. Powell then shows up again for “Lonesome Road Blues” and the duet works, the clash of personalities adding poignancy to the product. And then “Strawberry Blues” has a naivety rarely found in this kind of stuff. When she sings, “Look down the road/ What do I see/ Men have the women/ And the blues have me,” it’s hard not to grin at her ingenuity.p:BCR Body Copy RR
That same imagination makes tracks like “Jo Bones” and “C And O Train” pop in ways they might not in the hands of a lesser artist. While “Bones” allows the singer to play with a country-fried vocal twang not out of place at a square dance, “Train” is endearing in its desperation, if only because of a great revelatory line like this: “I never will get drunk anymore/ I lay my head on the barroom floor/ And I never will get drunk anymore.” Coming from a voice that doesn’t sound like it’s old enough to drink, it’s a lyric that’s especially layered.
It’s also a moment that epitomizes the true artistry of “Chasing The Ghost.” Never shy to reach beyond the parameters of the musical genres she nearly conquers here, Lydia Sylvia is smart enough to know how to keep things interesting and, perhaps more importantly, when to take those chances. Americana music is far more than mere banjos, harmonies and overalls. Americana music has roots, it has tradition, it has influence. With “Chasing The Ghost,” Lydia Sylvia checks each of those boxes with a vengeance.
Searching for spirits rarely sounds this prolific. And for that matter, it rarely amounts to something this good. Spooky.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***