The Infamous Stringdusters traffic in a particularly gripping style of bluegrass, and listening to their new album, Silver Sky, is like sitting on the edge of your seat at the end of a great suspense flick. The band’s instrumental work, already intensely dramatic, is magnified here by the production style of Billy Hume (Nas, Ludacris, Lil Jon, Nelly). The vocals are mixed clearly and intimately, assuring that the listener is absorbed in the songs. Hume offered the band a sure-fire way to separate themselves from conventional recording methods, since he had no experience in recording bluegrass. This unusual marriage resulted in a unique sound for a bluegrass album. Silver Sky is at once intricate, robust, polished, and natural.
Production help is always better implemented when the source material shines and the Stringdusters have no shortage of great tunes. These twelve songs are almost impossibly good; if the album doesn’t win a modicum of awards in the bluegrass/acoustic realm this year, it will be no fault of the creators. It’s clear that Hume’s goal wasn’t to impart some new kind of process on the band, but to make sure their creamy vocal harmonies and stunning musicianship were presented as crisply as possible. Fiery guitar licks and wild banjo runs are ever-present but never overbearing, allowing the lyrics to shine. These songs would have made a nice album no matter what, but the band’s vision is more fully realized and impactful because of the collaboration.
The appeal of Silver Sky expands as the album progresses. It’s a concise experience, but a whiff of the band’s wide-open live show comes through in the variety and vibrancy of the tracks. There are fine, if unsurprising, cover tunes ("Walking on the Moon," "He’s Gone"), contemporary bluegrass burners that are uniquely stoked with a pronounced bass thump ("Don’t Mean Nothin’, "The Hitchhiker," "The Place I Call Home"), and several examples of the band’s own sort of "high country" music of widely varied influence ("Rockets," “Tears of the Earth," “Like I Do”). Reggae, jazz, and world music show in “Heady Festy” (named in reference to the band’s own festival) and “Fire,” a jubilant journey of a tune that features the Rubblebucket horns. “Night on the River” might be the most representative song on the album, sort of like the Stringdusters summed up in one song: down-home yet sophisticated, sonically perfect with just a touch of grit, comprised of engaging lyrics and mind-enveloping music.