Greensky Bluegrass : Handguns

“Calamity and uncontrollable circumstance is what waits outside our door.” This is a fitting quote lifted from the liner notes of Greensky Bluegrass’s latest studio release, Handguns.

The group has had its head down, pushing the proverbial envelope since forming in 1999, gigging at clubs, theaters, and festivals, playing nearly 175 shows annually. They are an unquestionably tight knit group that loves to crisscross the country making music together. In the vein of ensembles like Yonder Mountain String Band and Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass is not slowing down anytime soon – quite the opposite actually.  They’ve been gaining considerable momentum since their 2006 victory in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition, and while these guys have always been able to throw a raging party, their musical chops have become precision-honed as a result of their extensive touring schedule.

Paul Hoffman is the cornerstone to this band’s proclivity toward lyrical meticulousness. Having penned 10 of the 14 tracks on the latest album, Paul’s insight into the human soul and his ability to capture emotions in writing gives depth and legs to the songs he composes. Hoffman does not seem to approach his songwriting in a formulaic manner, but rather he relies on life experiences and self-reflection for his choice words. “Greensky Bluegrass hits timeless targets with deadly accuracy while simultaneously veering off the tired and true highway,” is a quote I encountered on that summarizes this band’s significance to the bluegrass genre, and the reasons behind their appeal and success.

The difficulty in composing this review was trying to limit the number of superlatives I use to describe this tight and polished album. I am biased since I love any bluegrass, but it’s amazing to see this band come into its own over their last four studio albums. Handguns is aptly titled; the delivery of the message is fast and hard-hitting. The track listing offers some cohesiveness to a storyboard that is broad in scope, while supporting an underlying theme of strife and perseverance. The album opens with “Don’t Lie”, which is a quintessential Greensky Bluegrass song with emphasis on lyrical phrasing and a honky-tonk, country-western feel. The meat of this track features excellent solo picking that introduces each of the band members to their audience before moving into the title track, “Handguns.” The title track does well at pulling the listener into into Greensky Bluegrass’ world through pensive prose and dynamic rhythms.

The impeccable musicianship that each band member brings to the table in this number is indicative of the entire album.  “Cold Feet” and “Beauty and Pain,” are both good songs, but “No Idea” is a definite stand-out about learning life lessons the easy, and not-so-easy, way.  “I’d Probably Kill You,” is a tune that will become lodged somewhere in your prefrontal cortex forcing you to recite the chorus repeatedly throughout the day. The horn arrangement adds a great texture to the song reinforcing the talent this band has in both composition and arrangement.  “Jaywalking” is another excellent Paul Hoffman number, who has really cut his teeth on this album as a composer. The stand-out Dave Bruzza song on this release is “Blood Sucking F(r)iends,” the lyrics offer an interesting take on human interaction, and the supporting vocals give the song a distant feel.  Bruzza brings a more traditional and somber tone to the songs he composes and his style of guitar playing.

The two most experimental tracks on the album are Hoffman’s “Before Bring Out Your Dead” and “Bring Out Your Dead.” The lyrical and musical composition of these two songs, which are really a single track broken out into two parts, is genre-bending when placed in the context of the album. These tracks highlight the band’s willingness to push beyond the confines of an acoustic genre, and the risk-taking culminates in what might be the most unique track this band has released to date. The album rounds out with an extended tune, “All Four,” which showcases the bands ability to stretch the life of any given song through extraordinary picking.

With songs ranging from two minutes in length to well-over 10 minutes, this band has been able to channel some of their live improvisations into extended compositions that still retain an organic feel. It’s not always easy for a road-hungry band to translate the energetic and lively sound of their live performances to the studio; however, Greensky Bluegrass makes the shift almost effortlessly. The band’s ability to flow seamlessly as a single unit, and incorporate a variety of elements from different musical forms, has been enabled by each band member’s anticipation and ear for the other. This is a skill-set that is honed over the years through repeated practice and live performances.  This makes Handguns an excellent album that really defines the Greensky Bluegrass sound.

Handguns is out now on Big Blue Zoo Records