Blue Mafia – Hanging Tree
The third studio release from Indiana bluegrass five piece Blue Mafia, a twelve song album called Hanging Tree, makes clear their debts to bluegrass tradition but also speaks from a very personal place and has a refreshing modern sound that keeps their presentation from sounding too dated or slavishly imitative. Blue Mafia doesn’t draw their vision of bluegrass from contemporary outfits and owes nothing to any band working today; instead, their finishing school were acts like The Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, et al, and the hold those roots possess over these songs is deep and extensive. The experiences and point of view of a lifetime go into these songs and make them fly with an effortless other outfits can only hope to mimic. Hanging Tree has a lot to offer and each detail is rendered with impressive and warm clarity.
The clarity is particularly apparent in songs like the opener. You can seemingly hear every pick scratch on the banjo and the remaining instruments share that same warm intimacy. “Like a Mining Man” is built around the balance dominating much of the album – the playing off between Curtis Bumgarner’s banjo and Kent Todd’s fiddle. The vocal elements make an enormous difference as well, but it’s clear they have a straighter path towards success and can’t hardly help but succeed. Orchestrating the instrumental passages in a consistently fresh and evocative way isn’t as easy as it might seem. “Hanging Tree”, the title track, is one of the best songs on the album. The interplay between the musicians reaches a zenith here because it simmers with such chemistry and a careful understanding of the song’s needs. Dara Wray’s vocal contributions are perfect on this song, but the way Blue Mafia mixes up their three outstanding singers is a quality few other bands, any genre, so obviously possess.
“The Man You Know” is probably the quietest rebuke of hypocrisy you’ll ever hear. It’s Dara Wray’s first songwriting contribution to Hanging Tree and quite a memorable one as she dissects those whose public face rarely aligns with who they really are and the far-sighted maturity some of the lyrical content shows will help make the song stand out. Thanks to a stripped back arrangement, much of the listener’s attention will fall on her words and voice to satisfying effect. “With Body and Soul” is a great modern interpretation of a bluegrass classic that Blue Mafia tackles with robust and un-ironic charm. “Midnight Rain” shares the same restrained style of arranging as the earlier “The Man You Know” and a more biting point of view, but there’s more obvious substance here rather than a skeletal arrangement merely suggesting it. Despite the heartbreak in its lyrics, “You Belong With Me” is a touching and quantifiably beautiful performance. The final track on Hanging Tree, “Who Are You”, has a number of surprising musical turns and a light commercial edge that Blue Mafia handles without giving up any of their credibility. Hanging Tree further sets Blue Mafia apart as one of the best Americana bands working today and their talents are continually growing.
9 out of 10 stars
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