By Evan Verploegh
Newcomers to the local bluegrass scene, The Thirsty River have already been making waves in a genre that has some stiff competition. Only a couple years into their musical journey, the band has already created a very enjoyable, bright and bouncing E.P. In the April release The St. Croix Sessions gives you an inside look to a hardworking, and highly competent group of musicians and manages to stand out against a multitude of impressive americana and bluegrass records.
The E.P. comes out of the gates hot with the quick-picking “Burns Like Coal”. We hear out first hints of the soothing vocal harmonies that The Thirsty River creates. This style is present throughout the album and is very unique to the band. As the song nears its end, we hear a cry of “faster” and it’s double time the rest of the way.
“Superior, WI” takes on a more mellow mood. A perfectly melancholy guitar riff allows a weeping banjo line to complement. The bare bones sound is broken by the introduction of a booming drum and mandolin accompaniment, with the vocals to soaring over the top.
For the third track to The St. Croix Sessions the band ratchets up the tempo again. A steady, yet furious banjo line from Evan Jungbauer gets us going before we get echoing, percussive mandolin licks from the last-name sharing, Ben. Around the 2:15 mark, a stop/start banjo riff sets the stage for a final element of musical exploration before the dust settles. Musically, “Donald Kraus” might be the most interesting on the E.P.
“Snake in a Bag” is simply a classic folk/bluegrass tune. The tune features a twanging vocal, illustrative lyrics and an uptempo section that puts the picking fingers to the test.
The fifth track “Hollow Man” is a haunting track with a gritty, wailing vocal. We hear expressive, and spirited lines being delivered regarding a man who is left a shell by his own vices. This emotionally charged track is a highlight of the well-rounded St. Croix Sessions.
Tempo is lowered for the sixth song and vocals are opened up again to shine. The crisp sounding production on “I Relate to You” allows each instrument to intertwine with one another underneath the continually impressive vocal harmonies. Piano from David Anderson is a very welcome feature of the track, which is sometimes painfully ignored in the bluegrass world.
To close things out, we get a slinky little number called “Levi”. We are quickly thrown into a frisky groove that remains the length of the final track. The steadiness allows for some sauntering banjo and mandolin solos. There is a bit of tongue in the check of this one and it is well deserved after the journey through this multi-faceted record.
A common complaint from those who struggle to fully embrace bluegrass is the feeling of repetitiveness. Songs can sound similar from an instrumentation standpoint and thus interest is lost. If I were to introduce someone to the genre, I would strongly consider giving The St. Croix Sessions spin. Each song takes on a life of its own and begs to stayed tuned in. It’s eclectic releases like this that prove that bluegrass is not only alive and well, but pushing new, forward-thinking boundaries.