Album Review

The Slocan Ramblers - Up the Hill and Through the Fog

Canadian bluegrass outfit The Slocan Ramblers capture the poetry of the everyday so convincingly that it's as if they write stadium anthems for your front porch.

Holler Country Music

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Canadian bluegrass outfit The Slocan Ramblers capture the poetry of the everyday so convincingly that it's as if they write stadium anthems for your front porch.

It may look easy, but it takes a diamond cutter’s touch to craft song lyrics so that they mimic the flow of casual conversation. It’s harder still to convey them with wisdom and humor. Frank Evans of The Slocan Ramblers was clearly blessed with that touch. And there are moments on the Toronto-based bluegrass quartet’s fourth album Up the Hill and Through the Fog where Evans and his bandmates create an atmosphere that’s as comfortable as the sensation of kicking back in your favorite chair on the front porch.

On the playful album opener ‘I Don’t Know’ (inspired by Jim Croce, Jerry Reed, and The Osborne Brothers), Evans’ narrator pokes fun at himself, scratching his head trying to fathom why the woman of his dreams chose to be with him. From within the relationship, his idea of a happy solitary life sounds absurd: “I always thought it sounded good,” Evans sings, “to have a cabin in the woods / with only me to hear my thoughts and prayers. / I’d write a novel through and through / maybe an opera or two / and perform it for the fox and the bears.”

Throughout the whole album, Adrian Gross’s mandolin, Darryl Poulsen’s acoustic guitar, and Evans’ banjo mesh together in a gentle push-pull not unlike the pleasant sway of treetops as four-part harmonies sweep through the arrangements like a light breeze. Surprisingly, for a bunch of jazz-trained musicians who still like to flex their virtuosic chops, The Slocan Ramblers can be rather tasteful. Here and there, Poulsen and Gross splash these songs with just enough added harmonic dimension to tantalize the ear, but not enough to compromise the music’s traditional bluegrass structure.

As Poulsen solos on the lilting ‘Won’t You Come Back Home,’ for example, Gross plays an ascending two-chord figure that nods at early 20th-century jazz, but all we get is a fleeting glimpse in that direction before the moment passes. (New bassist Charles James, meanwhile, gets to showcase his robust style from literally the first note.) It’s important to remember that The Slocan Ramblers first got together at Humber College, a Toronto music school with a heavily jazz-oriented curriculum. Playing bluegrass was actually their way of letting off steam. But when bluegrass unexpectedly became a career, the band wore the influence of West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina on its sleeve.

As is so often the case, when modern acts borrow accents and vocal mannerisms from a distant time and place, it can actually break the enchanting spell of the music. Evans, for example, wouldn’t need to drawl that he “was livin’ on a mountain” at the start of ‘Won’t You Come Back Home’ for listeners to feel transported back to, say, the West Virginia of 70 years ago. Through their now-departed original bassist Alastair Whitehead, The Slocan Ramblers do have a direct tie to the folk music of Newfoundland, which bears the same Scottish roots as the Appalachian forms we’ve come to know as bluegrass. It would be nice to see the band inject some of its own heritage into its music.

That said, The Slocan Ramblers have thrown themselves into writing original material with such relish that they do put their own stamp on tradition with Up the Hill and Through the Fog. They even manage to nail the vibe and cadence of Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever-era tune ‘A Mind with a Heart of Its Own.’ The Petty track turns out to be the perfect choice for the spirit of the album, because The Slocan Ramblers capture the poetry of the everyday so convincingly it's as if they write stadium anthems for the porch.

8.5/10

Up the Hill and Through the Fog is out 6/10 via SloMusic