Here’s something you won’t read often in this column: The band doesn’t need the drummer. Yet in this case, it’s true.
Back in 2014, with “Big Red Ball,” Grand Ole’ Ditch offered up an endearing set of bluegrass ditties that ranged from barrels of fun (“Pigeon Eatin’ Catfish”) to shots of beauty (“Sadie Mell”). It was a good record, one perfect for those who harmlessly enjoy harmless music.
Now, in 2016, the Cumberland septet is back with “Unwind,” a decidedly more eclectic collection of music that stays true to its Americana roots while experimenting with accessible textures that only sometimes work. Out is the formulaic approach that made “Big Red Ball” so innocuous, and in is an ambition that reaches a little too far beyond its bounds on occasion, and also in is a drummer.
“This Time” is the most obvious example of overextension. It opens like a Carrie Underwood song … or a Dierks Bentley song … or, essentially, any song you might hear on modern-day country-pop radio. The drums drive forward with a rock groove, while slide guitar, banjo and fiddle combine for a lukewarm riff that you swear you’ve heard before. Perhaps the sore thumb wouldn’t stick out so … well … sorely if the move didn’t feel so manufactured, but it does, if only because there’s nothing else around it that sounds entirely similar.
Not doing it any favors is “Copper Kettle Coal,” which has a load of potential but feels oddly forced whenever the verses come around. Breaking in half to accommodate a mid-tempo feel — led by rock drums — is not something Grand Ole’ Ditch is known for doing, and while they deserve points for thinking outside the box, the move kind of makes you long for the happy bluegrass that these guys do so well.
Like on the opening title track. Building for nearly two minutes, the song explodes with a train beat that actually serves the live drums well. “I spend all my week in a box and a seat, just waitin’ for my chance to unwind” is how the chorus unfolds, and with a bevy of countrified vocal harmonies behind it, the moment feels anthemic, begging to be the first song played at a bluegrass festival near you. Throw in some tasteful, quick soloing, and what you have is a memorable call to arms.
Equally as fun is “Chester’s Breakdown,” which accelerates at a lightning pace and refuses to slow down for even a second after the gas pedal hits the floor. Hearing players sprint through their moments under the spotlight is like passing a scalding-hot skillet from one set of hands to another. Rarely do you have time to catch your breath, and that’s a good thing. It’s a lesson in impatient expedition that everyone should be happy to study.
“Foolish Pride,” the set’s swan song, keeps the pace intense while adding melancholy vocals and quirky baritone backing vocals that ought to force a smile onto any listener’s face. The trick even recalls an air of doo-wop that’s exactly as charming as it sounds. “Pick Me Up” slows things down a little, but the energy cuts deeper as a line like “You pick me up just to put me down again” anchors the production.
Sadly, it’s not enough to erase the stain of a track like “Whippoorwill.” It’s just too blatant an attempt to cross over into adult contemporary radio. Sure, an orchestral fiddle fills in some of the blanks with beauty, but once the transition into tropical flair introduces itself after about a minute and a half, all of the heads should be all types of scratched. Jumping back into the soft rock sludge that carries the verses only dampens the mood.
All told, the misstep could have been avoided if the band decided to lose the sticks. It’s not anybody’s fault, really — Todd Hocherl isn’t a bad player by any means, and given the material, it’s hard to imagine what parts might fit better than what he’s already doing. But this is not a group that needs the traditional drum element to excel. Rather, the traditional bluegrass formula is what serves Grand Ole’ Ditch so well, and the traditional bluegrass formula is not heard enough on “Unwind.” The talent is there, but the focus isn’t.
So … Grand Ole’ Ditch the drummer? Grand Ole’ Ditch the drummer.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **