Since emerging with one of the strongest debuts of 2013, Blue Mafia have done the work necessary - touring, writing and wood-shedding - to gain a measure of recognition within the crowded bluegrass field. "Hanging Tree," their third album, continues the group's ascension within the marketplace.
Emphasizing the importance of balance, Blue Mafia combine to be dynamic and distinctive. Featuring multiple lead voices, strong original songs as well as the ability to locate good new ones and an agreeable instrumental mix, Blue Mafia is assuredly on the right track.
Dara Wray's songs are a staple of Blue Mafia albums, and this time three are offered. "You Belong With Me" benefits from a nice '70s folk-rock vibe while "The Man You Know" contains the astute observance, "Singing in church Sunday morning don't make you a Christian man, any more than playing bars on Friday means I'm straying from the Master's plan." Hopeful and observant, her "Life" would be right at home on an early Dale Ann Bradley album.
The title track was featured in the penultimate film of "The Hunger Games" series and as effective as Jennifer Lawrence's performance may have been, Blue Mafia takes it to another level; the five-string of Calib Smith and Wray's voice lend haunting, smoky components not present in the galvanizing cinematic version. More familiar to bluegrass audiences will be "With Body and Soul," the Virginia Mae Stauffer song recorded by Bill Monroe in 1969. A signature Monroe number, Blue Mafia remain true to the song's spirit while infusing their own personality.
The classic "Loneliness and Desperation" is provided a rousing take with Tony Wray taking the lead, and a newer song "Midnight Rain" (with turns of phrase worthy of Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson) provides a melancholic vision of life on the road; co-written by Craig Market and Dara's mother Cindy Denman, this is a great song and performance with lead vocals by Kent Todd. Todd, a fierce fiddler, also sings the lead on "Sweet Mary of the Mountain." Smith, who has since departed the group, wrote the strong lead track "Like a Mining Man."
With 12 songs, "Hanging Tree" is a meaty album without filler. Blue Mafia remain underappreciated within the bluegrass industry. The comprehensive quality of this album should start to change that.