Too often when we listen to a record do we comment on the actual quality of the sound. The most base reaction would be that whether the songs are good or bad, but even the most nuanced and critical reviews comment last on whether the songs—good or bad—sounded good. This could be a symptom of the loss of the stereo system that was surely a feature of your grandparent’s house, two speakers and a receiver, only to be replaced by in-ear iPhone buds, or worse Beats by Dre. As Mark Richardson recently discussed on Pitchfork: “Transmitting electricity is easy, moving air is hard.”
So maybe that was why I was so surprised when I started playing Barnstar!’s Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! The record, whether pumping through my computer speakers or my home stereo system, sounds really great. The Bluegrass/Folk band may have a slight advantage in that their instruments are all acoustic, and therefore aren’t victim to the buzzing and humming that electric instruments often have to compensate for. There’s space for everything on this record; the harmonies blend instead of being layered, the rhythm recedes to accompany rather than compete, and the lead instrument never outshines or muddles the vocals. Barnstar! should consider this a major victory in a time when more and more records are being compressed, unnecessarily, as all our cell phones can hold more music than most know what to do with.
And I think part of the reason why I noticed how good the record sounded so good was because the band sounds good. For a collection of mostly cover songs, it works as an album. This cohesion probably has a lot to do with the fact that, although a lover of bluegrass, I’m not listening to it everyday, and maybe fail to see the nuances that some tried and true fans might.
The most interesting songs on the album become the songs that might not be considered “traditional” bluegrass covers. “Sequestered in Memphis” plays well, and retains some of the crassness of the Hold Steady. “Trouble,” the Cat Stevens song, is probably one of the iffier moments on the album. I’m not saying it’s a bad cover, it’s actually a great cover that straddles the original perfectly. My problem here is that for me Elliott Smith’s version is untouchable. It’s like anyone else trying do “All Along The Watchtower” other than Dylan or Hendrix. The biggest surprise cover is “Stay With Me,” a song that I loved, hated, then loved. It is an interesting and daring choice, but completely practical unlike some other hokey bluegrass covers that you see posted on your facebook timeline every 3 months (or is that just me?).
As for the other songs, while I’m not as familiar with the source material as the above three songs, there’s no real complaint. I’m a big fan of the song “Delta Rose,” which sounds to me more traditional than the rest of the album, and the trio it’s part of on latter half of the album (including “Cumberland Blue Line” and “Country John”). They don’t feel false the way some of this Americana Revival music does. The song “Country John” is a tribute to John Lincoln Wright, a longtime regional country singer who died in 2011.
The lyrics to “Country John” reference the fact that he never really made it outside of his regional popularity, which could be the same problem that Barnstar! faces if they follow in his footsteps. Country, Bluegrass, and Blues music is surprisingly popular in Yankee New England Territory (real Country music), and now that C, BG, &B has a more mainstream face, they can venture outside of the land where you eat pie for breakfast.
Article by: Christopher Gilson