There exists a palatable line separating premier, contemporary bluegrass bands - the Blue Highways, Union Stations and the McCourys - and other truly great bands, and that line takes years to approach. But once traversed, the affect is aurally apparent: the playing is just a notch crisper, the harmonies a stitch cleaner, the interpretation a sliver more innovative. With their previous album "Papertown," Balsam Range edged a significant step toward to that destination; with "Five," they have arrived.
Their previous albums have proven the group determined to move away from the most familiar of bluegrass songs. While their debut album included several staples of the genre, by the time "Papertown" arrived two years ago, Balsam Range was digging deeper for material. Mining the blues, pre- and post-WWII country, and lesser recorded Nashville writers, Balsam Range created for themselves a solid catalog of songs, consistently buoyed by material from the band's favorite writer, Milan Miller.
"Five" continues this satisfying model. Here, none of the songs appear overly familiar, although several - "Everything the Glitters (Is Not Gold)," "Matthew," and "Songs I've Sung"- have been previously recorded by others. This ability to bring freshness to their approach is terribly appealing. Even when the band drifts far from the shore - as on Mickey Newbury's "The Future's Not What It Used to Be," replete with piano and Buddy Melton doing his best Vince Gill - the critical listener is willing to accept this as an artistic stretch.
As always, the songs acquired by songwriting friends are stellar. Miller explores the tribulations of the working man in a pair of songs, including the effective "I Spend My Days Below the Ground," co-written with Mark Bumgarner and sang very effectively by Melton. Bumgarner further explores the working week contributing "Monday Blues."
Marc Pruett has emerged as one of bluegrass's finest banjo players. Listening to him take a lead on the instrumental "Backdraft" or supporting with sparse, melodic explorations within "From a Georgia Battlefield"- the album's most uniformly excellent track - is a pleasure.
Melton and Caleb Smith are as effective a 1 and 1A combo as exists in vocals. The band's dexterity is in evidence not only on the vocal showcase "Stacking Up the Rocks," but throughout the album including when Tim Surrett takes the lead as on the sentimental favorite, "Songs I've Sung."