Album Review

The Infamous Stringdusters – Toward The Fray: Album Review

Masterful, breathless, bluegrass from Grammy-winning combo, The Infamous Stringdusters.

Release Date:  18th February 2022

Label: Americana Vibes

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Digital

Hold onto your hats, because this is a fast one!  Grammy-winning bluegrass/ country/ folk/ Americana outfit, The Infamous Stringdusters have pulled off something REALLY special with their new album, Toward the Fray, their twelfth, and their first full-length collection of original material since Rise Sun, back in 2019.  Not that the guys have been totally quiet in the meantime… they spent their lockdown days working remotely and, amongst other things, produced their 2021 Grammy-nominated collection A Tribute to Bill Monroe – their homage to the man who not only pioneered bluegrass but also gave the genre its name.

The Infamous Stringdusters are: Travis Book (bass), Andy Falco (guitar), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Andy Hall (dobro) and Chris Pandolfi (banjo).  To say that each member is a master of his chosen craft is an understatement that compares with “the Beatles were popular.”  These guys are wizards.  Magicians.  Jetpack pluckers with super-speed fingertips.  And they set out their tunes in a way that gives each member multiple opportunities to show exactly what they’re capable of.  I’ll come back to that point…

The band emerged in 2006, after Andy and Chris got together with original guitarist Chris Eldridge at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA.  The three relocated to Nashville, where they were joined by mandolinist Jesse Cobb, fiddler Jeremy and, eventually, Travis Book.  Andy Falco replaced Eldridge in 2007 and Jesse Cobb left the band in 2011, creating the lineup that has stuck together ever since. 

The band are known particularly for the excitement and energy of their live performances, in which every member of the band is given the space to stretch out and exercise his considerable talent, and that’s an approach that is employed to massive effect on Toward The Fray.  In just about every song there’s ample opportunity for each of the lead instruments to take a turn in the spotlight, and the dobro/ guitar/ banjo/ fiddle soloing that permeates every corner of this album is never less than breathtaking.

The songs on Toward The Fray saw light of day during the interminable days of lockdown.  By necessity, the band members were forced to write separately, but the unit is tight enough, and the separate members experienced enough, to enable the aspired “live but loose” sound to be realized, once the band were once again able to get together in the same room.  As Chris Pandolfi explains: “With all our records, we always go into the studio to capture the live energy of our band, so I feel like we were comfortable just plugging right in and getting started.  All five of us have arrived at a point in our careers where we all produce, whether it’s our own music or for others, we knew we could get it done with all that collective intel and know-how.  One of the awesome things about being in this band is that everybody is always working on their instrumental game.  When we show up for a new tour or album, we all get a chance to dig a little deeper, and you can hear that part of it.  It has always been our mantra.”

The enforced solitude of lockdown also gave each of the band members the opportunity to consider the direction in which society is headed, and the results of those considerations are plainly visible in the finished songs.  Bassist Travis Book takes up the story: “…all five of us took the opportunity for our consciousness to evolve, and we took the responsibility seriously.  That’s what I hear when I listen to this record.  The songs are honest and real, but what other option do we have?  We have a responsibility as citizens of this country and of Earth, for both ecological and cultural reasons, to lean in and turn toward the battle.  Each of us brought a lot of conviction with [our respective] tunes and came with a clear idea of the statements we were going to make.  I think because of the situation we were all in, a harmonious and collective sound came out of that.”

So – my first question was: How does one square an album of honest, contemplative lyrics with the instrumental bluegrass gymnastics that are the trademark of a band like The Infamous Stringdusters?  And the answer is – by applying that special magic that these guys seem to have in limitless quantities.  One of my favourite features of Toward The Fray is the way that the lyrics are delivered calmly and clearly, often enriched by the smoothest and sweetest harmonies, whilst the instruments turn somersaults and cartwheels in the background.  I suppose that it shouldn’t work, but it certainly does!

The album gets underway with Hard Line, one of three cuts that have already seen light of day as single releases.  Bursting with energy and lightning-fast dobro, fiddle, guitar and banjo. It sets the pattern for the rest of the album and leaves the listener in no doubt about the breathless ride that coming.  The folkier I’m Not Alone steps back a little on the bluegrass pyrotechnics, but there’s still lots of delicious fiddling to enjoy and the soaring harmonies on the chorus are wonderful.

I Didn’t Know, another of the single cuts that are already in circulation, is a truly exceptional song.  The events of the past two years – the pandemic and, particularly, the death of George Floyd, provided Jeremy Garrett with the inspiration for the song.  The lyric: “I didn’t know that there was a sharp and bitter line/ I didn’t know that I was standing on the easy side/ I didn’t know that we were going different ways/ I didn’t know that we were headed for our darkest days” is a shrewd commentary on the divisions that increasingly plague western society, whether the divisions are racial, economic or political.  And the lyrical message is made all the more digestible by the song’s fast, smooth tune.  A real album highlight.

The contrast between measured vocal delivery and breakneck instrumentation is particularly evident in Means to an End, a song that kicks off with some delightful flamenco guitar and features all the usual airborne soloing – including a simply wonderful dobro solo that explores sitar sounds and Hendrix-like shrieks – before working up to the most frantic finish imaginable.  The band’s contemplative messaging gets another airing on Toward The Fray, the album’s title track and the third of those singles.  This time, the subject matter is the choice of whether to become involved in solving the turmoils we face, rather than taking the easy option of commenting from the sidelines and, again, the song’s arrangement a rich, folky tune with a Scottish feel, some nice banjo touches and wonderful bowed bass, help the listener to swallow the bitter pill of the lyrics.

And there’s lots more.  Pearl of Carolina is a comforting ‘going home’ song with some marvelous interplay between fiddle/ dobro and guitar/ banjo and Down From the Mountain offers more of the same.  The tender love song, How Do You Know? slows the pace a little, but not too much, and the various band members still manage to cut wonderfully loose, and Spirits Wild is a great, lively, lure-of-the-road romp that expresses all of the freedoms that we’ve been yearning to enjoy whilst we were locked down.

Perhaps my favourite track on the whole album is the mind-boggling instrumental, Revolution.  Perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life, but I genuinely haven’t heard anything quite as flawlessly engaging and exhilarating since I first heard Fairport perform The Brilliancy Medley.  There’s a lot of similarity – each member of the band has the opportunity to stretch right out in the spotlight and to also demonstrate his worth in the engine room.  The tune slides from theme to theme without so much as a pause for breath – and the whole thing made me gasp in wonderment.  This one’s a tune to silence even the hardest, loudest bluegrass cynic.

The cinematic When Will I Ride Again is a sequel to Tragic Life, an earlier song from The Infamous Stringdusters, which appeared on the band’s debut album.  The song’s message is the need to pick up whatever we’ve been doing and to carry on – something that we’re all having to deal with in the wake of the pandemic – before things are wound up with the wistful-yet-frantic Til I’m Satisfied, and the folky, easy-going Through The Floor.  Both songs provide a final taste of that wonderful musicianship that I recommend you take the trouble to experience.  Toward The Fray is a wonderful album that will leave you dazed!

Listen to I Didn’t Know – a track from the album – here:

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