Psychograss: Like Minds Review
Sugar Hill Records 3801
The subtitle on the back of this album accurately describes the project: “American Vernacular Instrumentals in the Bluegrass Spirit”. In this context, the adjective “vernacular” would be defined in most dictionaries as “native,” and that is entirely appropriate. The music is adventurous but not so radical as to be inaccessible to most bluegrass listeners, for it draws upon the stylistic conventions of bluegrass.
The members of the ensemble have played bluegrass in a variety of contexts in numerous other ensembles, frequently in a progressive mode. Darol Anger has played fiddle with David Grisman and in various acoustic jazz groups, and David Grier is one of the most highly regarded and inventive bluegrass guitarists of the present day. Mike Marshall is another alumni of the David Grisman-West Coast-Dawg music movement, Todd Phillips has played bass with the Bluegrass Album Band and Grisman, and, of course, Tony Trischka is well known for his inventive banjo work. The first album by the group (Psychograss, Windom Hill Records, 1993) was also jointly produced by Anger and Marshall, but this current project is much more oriented toward bluegrass. Trischka appeared on only one cut of the previous album but is a strong contributor to this project, as is David Grier, whose guitar always sounds inventive and witty.
I must confess that “new age” music doesn’t do much for me—I keep waiting for the vamp to end and for the real melody to begin. But this is not a new age album, for there are identifiable melodic lines and the group exercises a musical vocabulary that is progressive but still speaks a language that one can understand. Twelve of the 13 tunes on the album were composed by members of the band, while the remaining cut, “3rd Stone From The Sun”, is by Jimi Hendrix. There are a few slower tunes here and there, but there are also some great full-throttle breakdowns.
A careful review of the recordings made by Bill Monroe will reveal to the discerning ear that he was constantly experimenting with the sound of “The Bluegrass Music.” This album represents such an adventurous and joyful excursion. Don’t let the cover discourage you—if you are looking for some fresh and stimulating ideas, you will enjoy this recording.
PSYCHOGRASS Like MindsSugar Hill 3851
Psychograss is somewhat of a “dream team” of acoustic instrumental music. Original members Darol Anger (fiddle), Mike Marshall (mandolin) and Todd Phillips (string bass) all served apprenticeships in David Grisman’s early bands before moving on to front numerous ensembles, alone and together. Although based on the opposite coast, banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka shares with the others an improvisational, eclectic bent to acoustic music, along with a distinctly twisted sense of musical humor. In the last few years, new recruit David Grier has distinguished himself as one of the most original and accomplished acoustic guitarists in the business. This, the band’s sophomore release, features an hour’s worth of genre-bending, digit-cramping compositions written (with the exception of a newgrass cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “3rd Stone From The Sun”) by individual band members. Anger’s opening cut, “Tree King Creek”, is a bright, uptempo piece that within its four minutes gives solo space to introduce each player. Marshall’s pastoral “Hot Nickels” starts out with a sinuous mandolin line that serves as a springboard for seven minutes of breathtaking playing, punctuated by some striking dynamic shifts as the players trade off the lead. Trischka’s medley of the autumnal “Forgiven” and the lilting Celtic piece “Stuart Symington’s Summer Song” provides some more beautiful ensemble playing, including some fine, understated percussion by band member emeritus Joe Craven. The closest the group comes to bluegrass here is Trischka’s speedy, contorted “Garlic and Sapphires”, while the highest ratio of notes per measure undoubtedly occurs on Grier’s flatpicking showcase “Tennessee Twister”. One of the most adventurous pieces is Phillips’ “Mind’s Meat”, which starts with a free-form bass and mandolin passage before rolling into the lyrical ensemble part.
Psychograss has emerged as a mature, well-tuned ensemble made up of gifted players and writers. The (relatively straight) Hendrix cover aside, there are fewer musical novelties here than on the ensemble’s debut, and it makes for a stronger recording. --MP