Washington, D.C. bandleader Frank Solivan appears to be very aware of the gradual vagaries of his bluegrass world. "Cold Spell" is a clean sounding, polished modern bluegrass album. It goes a bit far out on the branches, but maintains the energy and woody tones of more traditional bluegrass.
"Cold Spell" has at its core strong songwriting ideally balanced with exceptional instrumentation, powerful lead vocals and precise and uplifting vocal harmony. A cover of Pure Prairie League's "Country Song" moves along nicely, and there is a great little instrumental from reigning IBMA Banjo Player of the Year Mike Munford ("Yeah Man") that will appeal to those who think vocals just get in the way of a good bluegrass tune. A pair of Megan McCormick songs fit nicely with the band's original songs, and it is one of these that stands out from the rest.
When "Say It Isn't So" begins, Solivan's voice immediately cuts through the clutter that permeates so much modern music. It is conspicuously clear and bright, communicating heartfelt sentiment with obvious intensity. The song breaks from the bluegrass norm of having a three-minute burner open an album; "Say It Isn't So" goes on for nearly six minutes, and during that time, the four-piece band has an opportunity to fully explore the melody.
"Cold Spell" reminds us of the type of music Nickel Creek explored over the course of their albums of a decade ago. It pushes bluegrass to places that may not be immediately identified as "bluegrass," but truly can't be addressed as anything but bluegrass. Solivan is a superior vocalist, and by working with instrumentalists who complement his singing style - in addition to Munford, guitarist Chris Luquette and bass player Danny Booth - Solivan has created an environment conducive to experimentation without losing the plot.
The lighter "She Said She Will," the bright "Better (Days Go By)," and the pitiful story song "Betrayal" are among the highlights. The only misstep is an ill-advised, stereotypical bass kick-off and refrain to the instrumental "Chief Taghkanic."
"Cold Spell" is a strong album comprised of good songs that feature a well-defined and consistent approach to bluegrass.