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Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Steeldrivers - Hammer Down

The Steeldrivers - Hammer Down
2013, Rounder Records
In a town like Nashville you have four strata of musicians: The mega-stars, the headliners, the session/side musicians and the hungry newcomers or hangers-on.  Everyone knows the mega-stars, and most people would know a song or two from the headliners.  The kids are still trying to find their place and the hangers on are the lifers who never ‘make it’ but never give up. In betwixt and between them all is perhaps the most talent and dedicated group of musicians you will ever find.  These are the people who fill in the cracks on recordings for all of the above, from the new unknown working with an established songwriter to the biggest star on Music Row.  They are the session players and touring musicians.  These folks make their living playing music and supporting the muse of others.

Many of them play several instruments better than you or I will ever master one.  Many of them are singers and songwriters and arrangers and producers and anything else they can learn to keep them near the music.  Every once in a while one of these players will break out on his/her own.  That’s a parallel for the story of The Steeldrivers: Five highly successful musicians who have spent their careers playing the music of others.  Yet this dedicated group has been recording since 2006, and has become both critical darlings and crowd pleasers.  The Steeldrivers have recorded individually with some of the biggest stars in all of popular music, yet when they come together as one organic whole something special happens. The Steeldrivers return on February 5, 2013 with Hammer Down, perhaps their most sonically perfect work to date.

Hammer Down kicks off on the toe-tapping bluegrass of "Shallow Grave", featuring a memorable melody and exquisite vocal harmonies. That trend continues on "How Long Have I Been Your Fool", which takes a classic theme of betrayal and reworks it in wonderfully tuneful fashion. "When You Don't Come Home" completes a trio of dysfunctional or atypical relationship songs that open the album. This is the most infectious of the three, with primo vocals and some prodigious picking and fiddle playing involved as well.

"I'll Be There" takes this theme on a new direction, exploring in melancholy overtones the expectation, born of heartbreak that things will come back around. The melody here is nothing short of gorgeous, and the violin solo seems inspired by the late, great Stephanne Grappelli. Another type of darkness infuses "Burning' The Woodshed Down". Lead vocalist Gary Nichols sounds a great deal like Trout Fishing In America's Keith Grimwood, but perhaps never more than here. Perhaps even more intriguing, Tammy Rogers' harmony vocals make it sound like Alison Krauss is sitting in.

"Wearin' A Hole" is all about dancing (and drinking) as an escape from worldly troubles. It's a   feeling better song with a catchy mid-tempo arrangement that should make line dancers everywhere happy. "Lonesome Goodbye" is ripe with classic country melancholy. The brilliant melody is allowed to ride on the wave of an easy going arrangement that highlights its inherent beauty. The Steeldrivers launch next into the high energy bluegrass of "Hell On Wheels", the story of a small town girl gone wild. Full of frenetic energy and frantic instrumental work, you'll be jumping out of your seat when this little number comes on. "Cry No Mississippi" plays on the theme of falling out of love in a small town and having to see your former love on a regular basis. The bluesy folk arrangement is a perfect match for the pragmatic lyrics. Hammer Down comes to a close with the jaunty "When I'm Gone", which features the distinct melodies, vocal harmonies and instrumental prowess that seems to define The Steeldrivers. It's a sonically appealing way to say goodnight; one certain to bring listeners back for another go 'round.
The Steeldrivers suck you in and wrap you in their ever loving arms on Hammer Down.  Ten songs chock full of classic country heartbreak and neurosis await you, wrapped in amazing bluegrass arrangements bursting with irresistible pop hooks.  The chemistry here is amazing, and Hammer Down is a can’t miss listen.

Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)
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