Like many bands, Woodland West began in a basement. But even though they've moved up - literally - and added members from all over the U.S., that private jam session feeling stayed with them as they stepped foot in the recording studio for debut album "Devil to Pay."
The nine-track album showcases each member's strength and flexibility, from Luke Yanz's eclectic keyboard and guitar style to Stephanie Ward's crystal vocals that only improve with male harmonies. No one hogs the microphone, however, as tracks switch between singers and instrumentals take care to give everyone a turn at the solo role.
Every genre has its day, too. Though marketed as a bluegrass-Americana band, Woodland West draws in Pink Floyd psychedelia and bayou zydeco. "Rosaline" ends with a distinctly pop-rock sound, a driving beat echoing early-2000s Rob Thomas songs that make heads bop and shoulders twist. But then it's back to traditional bluegrass in "Late at Night," an old-school lament for an absent lover that pairs Ward's sad vocal message with an upbeat melody in a way that only Americana music can manage.
Those who prefer instrumental bluegrass will find what they seek across the album, from long interludes within vocal-led songs like "Desert Rose" to the lyric-less "Caribbean Kiss," which incorporates everything from island percussion to a sampling of Hammond organ that hearkens back to Booker T and the MGs.
That fearlessness in instrumentation makes Woodland West stand out from other groups. That's not to say that their songs lack lyrical power - "Man on Fire" has beautiful imagery of a trucker's not-so-glamourous job: "He may not like the sleepless nights in places that he'll never see again...18 wheels of steel above the road, 40 years of demons taking hold." But that final track also has one of the most well-rounded instrumentals on the album and showcases the piano, violin and guitar-plucking strengths of the group: A final kiss farewell before the album ends, leaving listeners wanting more.
Woodland West couldn't have found a better way to introduce listeners to their sound. If they do in fact have a "devil to pay" for the strength of this album, they got their money's worth.