The time has come to drop the label "female bluegrass band" as applied to Della Mae. With their second, self-titled, Rounder Records release, Della Mae is simply one of the most accomplished bluegrass acts on the circuit.
The four Dellas (they are down to a quartet with Mark Schatz standing on bass) have total command of their instruments (vocal and otherwise). They are skilled performers with a growing resume, including emerging IBMA Artist of the Year in 2013 and a Grammy nomination since their first Rounder effort, "This World Oft Can Be."
Now, the band had found the pocket of sweet evocative melodies with tight harmonies and killer instrumental fills. This album solidifies their status in the world of bluegrass.
Yet, with confidence and skill, Della Mae has added new sonic texture. Lead vocalist Celia Woodsmith displays precision coupled with an earthy, husky sound. And, the band enlisted Jacquire King, an established producer who has worked with Nora Jones, The Kings of Leon and Modest Mouse to produce. The result combines the rich and present sound that Della Mae has claimed as its signature, together with a deeply layered approach to the instrumentation that sets this work apart from others.
The Dellas open with a nod to their music scene roots on "Boston Town," but the theme of struggles of the heart and mind are never far from the centerline. "Shambles" stands out in this respect with powerful, swinging vocal phrasing with a healthy dose of Courtney Hartman's jaw dropping guitar picking, followed by Kimber Ludiker's ferocious fiddle licks. Jennie Lynn Gardner's mandolin picking can be overshadowed by the crazy-good Hartman and Ludiker, but she more than holds her own, contributing a strong vocal on "Good Blood." The songwriting is powerful.
After an opening display of solid songwriting and musicianship, "Della Mae" takes a mournful, darker turn with "Long Shadow" (featuring Hartman on vocals). This is not kickass bluegrass, but a story of loss and longing, executed beautifully. And then, displaying ever more confidence, "Della Mae" seals the deal with CD centerpiece "No Expectations." The cut features a Dobro-like line, which is haunting and executed with brilliance between Hartman's guitar and musical saw by Bonnie Paine of Elephant Revival guesting. The tune's familiarity (first recorded by the Rolling Stones, and well-known to Yonder Mountain concertgoers) is transformed by Woodsmith. She builds it and owns it.
In all "Della Mae" earns your attention and you will return to it for many years to come.