The Lonely Heartstring Band's debut, "Deep Waters," was uneven. Certain tracks lacked vitality, but the positive qualities - the keen instrumental interplay between the musicians, and George Clements' lead vocals - impressed.
"Smoke & Ashes" surpasses its predecessor by a significant margin.
The opening "Reverie" sets the tone: tasteful, somewhat mysterious and abounding with an appealing tension. The tension comes from LHsB increasing the 'push-pull' between their music's bluegrass roots and their ever-arching Americana branches.
The days of musicians having to serve long apprenticeships of servitude under the controlling hand of a tyrannical, bluegrass overlord are long past. LHsB are proving, alongside some of their acoustic cousins, that there is a different path available to today's highly skilled, articulate and (relatively) youthful bluegrass musician.
Produced by Bridget Kearney (Lake Street Dive, Joy Kills Sorrow), "Smoke & Ashes" unabashedly embraces the LHsB's jazz and pop/rock sensibilities within a fertile bluegrass grounding. As a result, their bluegrass doesn't sound like 1956's or even 2006's.
"Only Fallen Down" is a beautiful love song with an a cappella introduction, engaging mood and tempo changes, and noteworthy mandolin notes from Maddie Witler. And as LHsB do across the album, it is complemented by that which follows, a more up-tempo piece, but equally appealing and engaging, "The Other Side." Witler again shines, but the vocal harmony is even stronger, the timbre of the song slightly more aggressive.
LHsB are a complete unit. The harmonies between brothers George and Charles Clements are masterful, frequently reminding one of Simon & Garfunkel, perhaps most deliberately on the closing "Last Refrain." Patrick M'Gonigle joins in vocally, but his fiddle playing is most noteworthy, weaving across the vocal and instrumental harmonies with precision, providing each song with sonic intensity.
Either Gabe Hirshfeld's unhurried right hand is ideally suited to the LHsB's music, or his playing style has given the group their signature sound; his approach is entirely in synch with the overall vision they've established.
One senses only the faintest stirrings of 'high' and 'lonesome' in "Red Bird Flies," but it's a plum pitiful song regardless, with "desert wind, a moonlight dance," a rodeo that has "left the town" and the lingering question of "why the red bird flies away from here." Even darker is "Borderlands," a tale of small-town desperation, The Rolling Stones and self-determination.
The Lonely Heartstring Band create complex and wide-ranging acoustic music. There will be those who refuse to accept their sounds as bluegrass, but there isn't really anything else it can be called. It is a far cry from what many of us would have considered to be bluegrass even a decade ago, but the music is evolving, and LHsB is leading the way.