The Infamous Stringdusters are a six-piece band whose main instruments are bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle, dobro or lap steel, and banjo. There are three lead singers, two high tenors and a lower tenor/ baritone. So the ingredients are all in place for bluegrass. But Things That Fly is not a bluegrass album, although the band clearly demonstrates a talent for it, and I’m sure these musicians have played plenty of bluegrass in their times. Things That Fly is a country rock album, and a fine one. The banjo and mandolin together usually take the rhythm guitar part, but their percussive sound also covers for the fact that there are no drums. The lead guitar part is handled by the fiddle or dobro or both. So the sound of the album could fool you into thinking it’s bluegrass, especially the vocal harmonies, but the way the instruments are used is completely different, and it works amazingly well.
The first clue that this album is something different comes on the second track. The song is called In God’s Country, and the original was by U2. There is a brief tease at the beginning, and it sounds like this is going to be a Pickin’ on U2 version, but very soon the band starts hitting power cords, and the song drives home from there. Jeremy Garrett delivers a vocal the shows him to be one of the people who can be allowed to sing Bono’s parts.
Most of the songs here are originals, And the Stringdusters show a knack for writing varied grooves and hooks. Everyone in the band writes, and rarity of rarities, they each show an equal talent for it. Most of the original songs are cowrites, either between two members of the band, or by a band member in collaboration with an outside writer. Only dobro player Andy Hall writes by himself here. And I imagine that all songs were brought to and arranged by the full band, because the sound is consistent throughout.
The lyrics throughout strive for a universal appeal. The language is direct, and there are no specific details that might shut out any listeners. The songs offer encouragement and morale boosts, or relate experiences in love that anyone can relate to. You find this kind of writing in arena rock and in country. Many forgettable groups write this way, and so do many of the biggest stars. The difference is how well the singer puts it over. When sung with conviction, songs like these become everyman anthems. The Infamous Stringdusters pass this test with flying colors.
The two songs I have chosen to present both demonstrate the Stringdusters talent for creating an original groove. All the Same has a sort of bluesy almost reggae feel to it. This is perhaps the biggest surprise on the album, considering the combination of instruments, and the song sizzles nicely from start to finish. Masquerade has a four note hook in the bass part, echoed by other instruments, and also some touches of flavor, and that’s it for the verses. The song swells nicely at the choruses, but never overdoes it. It’s a spare arrangement, but it’s all that is needed.
So I wouldn’t mind if the Stringdusters ever decide to record a set of more personal songs. But I’ll keep coming back for the high level of musicianship, and the wonderfully imaginative arrangements.
The Infamous Stringdusters: All the Same
The Infamous Stringdusters: Masquerade