Here we are, less than two full months into 2014, and I already have more than a half dozen albums battling as my favourite of the year.
Rosanne Cash came out of the gate strong, but so did Suzy Bogguss. This month, Amy Black released the stellar "This is Home," Blue Highway delivered their typically outstanding style of bluegrass on "The Game", and Eric Brace and Karl Straub raised the bar with their gorgeous and astute "Hangtown Dancehall." Bruce Springsteen's set of odds & sods continues to impress (although Tom Morello's Atari-influenced noises grate me nerves) , Eliza Gilkyson's spectacular "The Nocturne Diaries" hasn't even been released yet, and I'm still waiting to hear BARK's "North."
What I'm trying to express is this: Wow!
There is so much great stuff to be heard, one has to be forgiven for not having heard all the wonderful roots, bluegrass, and Americana albums being released.
And now comes Tony Trischka out of the deep weeds with the very accessible and impressive "Great Big World." Sometimes- and this is my own darned fault- I push Tony Trischka a little 'over there.' The fact that my over-taxed brain sometimes confuses him with Tony Furtado is only part of the problem. Because I haven't listened to Trischka's music as frequently as I do more mainstream, traditional acoustic and bluegrass artists, I'm not as familiar with his approach and sound. As a result, he isn't at the fore of my thinking when I'm searching the shelves for something to quiet the voices in my head.
I'm going to have to do some serious reconsidering because "Great Big World" is a multi-dimensional, acoustic tour de force.
Joined by a long list of musical friends and similar-minded collaborators, Trischka follows up 2007's "Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular" (itself a darned impressive creation) and 2008's "Territory" (one I completely missed) with Great Big World, a creation that has immediately joined those previously mentioned albums as an early 2014 favourite.
There is no shortage of fresh and original music on "Great Big World," much of it straight-ahead bluegrass...depending on your definition of 'straight-ahead bluegrass.' Trischka loves to change things up regularly, adjusting tempos and moods at will- and sometimes repeatedly within individual songs.
Working with entrenched bluegrass talents such as Mike Compton (who sings and plays mandolin in a number of places) and Chris Eldridge (who handles much of the guitar work and also sings a little) allows Trischka to successfully root his music within the traditionally progressive sounds he appears to favour. Mike Barnett's fiddling is essential to the recording, and where he doesn't appear, the likes of Brittany Haas take over.
Eldridge, Michale Daves (who sings throughout the recording), Barnett, and Trischka, along with Sean Trischka on mandolin, come storming out of the gates with Say Goodbye (For KM) , a song whose emotional gravity is veiled by the joyfully blistering instrumental and vocal interplay. There is some incredible playing on this track, with Eldridge's guitar break especially appealing.
The majority of these songs are recent Trischka compositions, while other originals- such as fluid The Danny Thomas and parts of Single String Medley (a series of tunes each written and played on a different banjo string) have been waiting to be revealed.
Two banjo duets are featured. Steve Martin plays clawhammer style on Promontory Point while Noam Pikelny joins Trischka on Great Big World/Purple Trees of Colorado. Neither tune disappoints, with Daves' vocals on Purple Trees of Colorado adding bluegrass gravitas, grounding these ethereal moments.
Woody Guthrie's Do-Re Me and Stephan Foster's Angelina Baker- which features the supremely gifted Aoife O'Donovan singing with Daves- are the familiar standards included, while Johnny Bond's I Wonder Where You Are Tonight is also included, given a hardcore arrangement Trischka credits to Bill Monroe and Clyde Moody.
A song that is sure to get some attention is Wild Bill Hickok. Featuring a voiceover from actor John Goodman and vocals from Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Compton, this five-minute western epic explores a genre and structure at odds with the rest of the recording. Another outlier is Joy, a drum-heavy, fervent vocal showcase for Catherine Russell, while the closing Swag Bag Rag, featuring cello banjo, takes us back a hundred years or so. Their peculiarity harms not the album, and their very incongruity complements Great Big World's composition.
As I would have been with Pikelny's "Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe," I would be completely out of my depth critiquing any element of Trischka's five-string work. He sounds damn good throughout!
Tony Trischka's knack for experimentation enlivens the entire album- one cannot help but be impressed by the quirky little turns particular songs take. At the same time, the album is cohesive; its eclecticentricities are all part of its considerable charm.
Tony Trischka has long been recognized as a modern 5-string banjo master and innovator. While I am not as familiar with his catalogue as I should be, "Great Big World" is destined to be an album to which I regularly return.