What do you do if you’re in one of the most popular and successful bluegrass bands the western side of Maryland has to offer and you want to break out on your own? You grab your friends, allow your mind to wander, propose no limitations whatsoever and head into the studio to see what happens. Maybe some of it works. Maybe some of it doesn’t work. But at least you get it out of your system.
Such is what appears to be what happened with Craig Miller. A member of local Americana mainstays Grand Ole Ditch, the multi-instrumentalist steps into the spotlight with his debut LP, “A Spark.” Recorded at South Branch Recording Studios in Green Spring, West Virginia, the set is an uneven showcase for an artist who clearly has more than his fill of ideas, all the while displaying a fearlessness that, to be fair, is admirable in its own right.
Take, as an example, the difference between the album’s highest and lowest points. “The String” is the best thing Miller’s library, Grand Ole Ditch or not, and it’s because of his innate sense of tone. Steeped in roots reggae, the song proves how dynamic its writer can be, hushed vocals and all. Plus, this thing has a killer horn section. Sure, the bridge seems a little lost, but damn it if that groove doesn’t pull you right back once the song re-finds its footing.
Conversely, the title track is … tough. At a whopping 10 minutes and 38 seconds, it’s clearly an attempt by Miller to stretch out and become as epic as he possibly can. The problem is that there appears to be no direction when it comes to mapping out a route to the top of Epic Mountain. Easing in with acoustic guitar strums and an easy voice, the track eventually boils over into spastic soloing and an uptempo section that doesn’t quite line up with the rest of the song’s feel (and that’s evidenced with how wobbly it feels as the band comes in and out of the movement). In a word, it’s gratuitous.
The rest of the songs fall somewhere between the two. Opener “White & Yellow” is pleasant Adult Contemporary with a banjo/electric guitar riff that will stick in your head far longer than you think it should. Reminiscent of the wimpier side of Hootie & The Blowfish, the song is harmless and without question the most accessible he gets. You can practically feel the wind’s breeze as it blows through an open West Virginia field as the hook’s harmonies take shape.
Miller also has no problem exploring his funky side, which can be both good and bad. “Muddy Funny Walk” is a light dose of fun featuring a jangly banjo and requisite background party soundbites that give the production a communal vibe. Oh, and don’t sleep on the igniting sax solo that bursts onto the scene into open arms about halfway through the track. “Nothing Honey,” however, feels just a little forced, the groovy bass line needing just a little more soul and the pedestrian drums hoping for just a little more power. Not helping matters is the odd opening line, “The sun has set seven times, but you’ve only seen it six/Sometimes, you can even teach a dog new tricks.”
Anyway, many of the missteps are forgiven with “Biscuits & Coffee.” A play on the timeless “Go Tell It On The Mountain” refrain, the song perfectly outlines Miller’s sweet spot between Americana and bluegrass. Chugging along with some swing as the verses unfold, the middle sections provide a unique combination between picking and pop. Staying steady with an atypical mid-tempo structure, a competing banjo solos its way through the proceedings in double time. It works in a weird way — the type of feat that takes a few listens to truly appreciate, even if you wonder about the moving being the song’s best option.
Which, naturally, sums up “A Spark” nicely: A guy who’s unafraid to explore the depths of his imagination without consideration for consequence. Some of the failures are noble while some are just … well … failures. Meanwhile, some of the successes are laudably memorable while other successes are just … well … successes. It adds up to an imperfect, yet noteworthy debut from someone who’s been ready to step out on his own.
Or, well, in other words, it lights a spark. And now, it’s time to see how bright the fire can shine.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **