This is Blue Line Highway's third entry in FAME pages but their sixth release overall. The baseline Joy of Cooking mode of the group comes out very strongly in this largely live-in-the-studio work, and there's a distinctive difference between it and the previous discs, nothing earthshaking but rather a more intimate rawness and immediacy despite the perennial mellifluity of the group's work in whole—something, to take from Joy of Cooking's brief catalogue, a little closer to the ground. The trait's actually common to the uncommon practice of what used to be called 'direct to disc' recordings back when vinyl roamed the Earth. That engineering mode accounts for why music collectors like myself prize those bygone discs and their more modern manifestations: they're honest. You can't endlessly process the sound, twiddle pitch adjustments, dub in fills and ornamentation and such. What you hear is actually what went down, and it's a rare glimpse short of seeing BLH, or any other group, in concert.
This process makes John Leedes' electric and acoustic guitar and Doug Austin's mando work all the more relished for their charted and on-the-fly lines (there's an appreciable jam band presence in this sextet, an outgrowth of the bluegrass ethos: think String Cheese Incident, Rusted Root, etc. but not so whacked-out esoteric as Phish) and upfront freshness. Julia Dooley's voice is ever the front instrument with Melissa McKenna harmonizing. As well, the latter is the more constant acoustic rhythm guitar in the mix, while the former tosses in some harmonica every so often. Don't, though, mistake a sometimes very subtly backgrounded accordion for her harp. That there's Joe Conner, 'n his cordine's a constantly floating presence, adds a lot of atmosphere, and what you may often think is a bass line is in truth Constance Sisk and her cello, sometimes picking, sometimes bowing, always flowing.
Many more times than once, I was minded of the whole old San Fran and Fillmore sounds, especially in cuts like Into the Water, very free-spirited, breezy, and redolent of open fields and blue skies. Then the band's It's a Beautiful Day element compounds that, and the golden days of the 70s come rushing back. Don't, however, think everything's sweetness and light here. It ain't. Catch Dark Vein and its troubling subject matter as well as Mother without a Child (very baroque, Viennese, and Kentucky afternoon simultaneously—along with Swamp Boogie, my favorite cut), an interesting reversal of the traditional 'motherless child' narrative. One last matter, however: the mix and balance, not to mention the overall tone, don't quite measure up to the group's previous work. While this change-up is perfect for duplicating 70s ambiance, it suffers in missing the richness of earlier releases, and that smooth velvety presence has always been a powerful quality in this ensemble. It's not gone, it's just on a bit of semi-hiatus.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2012, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Website design by David N. Pyles