Blue Line Highway has such an unusual tack on things that it relaxes as it stimulates. Their last CD was reviewed here in FAME and, since then, they've ducked back into the studio, but not in the expected fashion. Keeping the mechanics to a minimum, Almost Reel was performed basically as a live in-studio gig, imbuing it with a sparkling energy and flow that's extremely easy on the ear while provoking foot-tapping and head bobbing. Think of America's debut LP cut with Matthews' Southern Comfort, a touch of Heart, some Plainsong, and a complex of Americana blended like ambrosia into mellow rock.
Helping out a sound that positively glows, Doug Austin, a letter-perfect instrumentalist with tremendous discernments, is again accompanying the band on mandolin and penny whistle, lending his magic to a group shining from all quarters. Joe Conner likewise re-upped, settin' down with a tres cool accordion. Julia Dooley's vocal work has entered its apogee, confident, gently swinging, airily colorful, and soothing. Several cuts are extended, and ya hafta catch the instrumental interplay in the last movement of You'll Get Yours—man, that kind of oh-so-cool energy is rare nowadays! At 9½ minutes, Frozen North is the disc's extravaganza, and the Phish element I mentioned last time around makes itself acutely felt. Very strong tangs of the Dead's golden mellifluous improv crop up all over the place as well, alongside some great Joy of Cooking callbacks, Melissa McKenna singing behind Dooley for a Garthwaite/Brown mellow duet bop.
Almost Reel definitely marks the band coming fully into its own. John Leedes' guitar work is impeccable, clever, and extraordinarily flexible, assuming a broad catalog of shades and styles. Bassist Ray Alfano assumes melodic invisibility in the quieter numbers, fitting seamlessly in, then erupts in jumping burbling lines underwriting the group's more exuberant flights. Main writer McKenna's acoustic guitar provides much of the even keel for the whole ensemble, and, like last time around, the lyrics are intelligent and often offbeat, never cliché even when comforting.
If there's even the slightest drawback here, I've yet to discern it, and the engineer remarked that his job was a piece of cake. Part of that lay in the group's attention to detail, carefully setting up a 16 microphone layout to catch everything perfectly, all in balance, nothing missed. The result is a very expansive sound that nonetheless achieves warm intimacy with a grin, a pensive glance, sometimes a philosophical scowl, and an afternoon's saunter down country lanes with a headful of memories under blue skies fleeced with gauzy clouds, relishing the feeling that all's right with the world…despite pesky humans and their fickle ways. We can use a whole lot of that right now.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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