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The Lil Smokies

Tornillo – 2020 (United Interests)

Reviewed by Jim Hynes

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CDs by The Lil Smokies

The band name may suggest Appalachia and in some respects their sound does, but Lil Smokies hail from Montana, and deliver "Tornillo," their third release, which is named for the town where the studio for this release, Sonic Ranch, is located.

Producer/engineer Bill Reynolds (The Avett Brothers, Band of Horses) helmed this project with the five piece frequently touring unit that boasts three songwriters. They are Andy Dunnigan (vocals, Dobro), Matt "Rve" Rieger (guitar, vocals) and Jake Simpson (fiddle, vocals) with Matt Cornette (banjo) and Scott Parker (bass).

The band kicks off energetically with "Fortune," revealing their rapid finger picking with prominent banjo and three-part harmonies. The standout track "Carry Me" is much calmer, displaying superb musicianship as Dunnigan again takes the lead vocal, singing about the distance created by life on the road. Another Dunnigan original, "Giant," was written after watching a documentary on Andre the Giant's struggles about living in the public eye. The band is adept at sudden changes and often find breaks in the songs for passages of unaccompanied vocals, further revealing their terrific harmonies. With Reynolds' encouragement the band experimented more than usual (best exemplified on "Blood Money"), adding hints of drums, baritone guitar, synth pads and even tracking one of Billy Gibbons' (ZZ Top) electric guitars. These are subtle flourishes though as the predominant sound is that a five-piece acoustic string band.

"World's on Fire" is a co-write between Rieger and Simpson, introducing a slightly different sound but dazzling fiddle, Dobro, and banjo breaks. Simpson's one original, "Life Out There," begins as a lovely ballad, morphing into a mid-tempo piece with cohesive string interplay. Another clear standout is the soft-spoken, ballad-like "Always, Now Never" from Rieger, hearkening back somewhat to a '70s country rock sound. The simple stunning piano imbued closing title track, a co-write between Dunnigan and Rieger, was written for Dunnigan's girlfriend, but could easily be interpreted as a love letter to the town.

Great songs, terrific instrumentation, glorious harmonies and no filler make this a consistently strong album.