Another one of those bands who are taking Bluegrass into a more formal arena, Head For The Hills, a Colorado four piece, eschew the frantic scrubbing and speedy solos one associates with the tradition. In some ways they are similar to The Punch Brothers although nowhere near as formal and there is a warmth at the heart of their playing, something which this writer feels is sometimes absent from Chris Thile’s crew. This is perhaps most apparent on the title song which has a strong musical architecture – the melody flows, the harmonies are great, the playing refined yet delivered with a fine zest – and there’s a sly humour in the lyrics with singer, Adam Kinghorn, admitting that the potions and poisons in question include candy, coffee, cocaine and coitus!
Several of the songs do have that Punch Brothers’ habit of changing time signatures in a song while the instruments approximate the various sections of an orchestra in miniature. The woody timbre of the fiddle (and occasional cello and viola) is used to great effect but there’s less debt to classical composers with more than a hint of Tin Pan Alley here and there, Telling Me Lies being a good example. The opening song, Afraid Of The Dark, is a murky gun fuelled tale that might be a murder ballad although the words are somewhat opaque. The overall sense of menace is relieved by a weird waltz time instrumental break (with a backwards sound effect included) towards the end. Suit And Tie is zippier with the band taking flight on their strings and things despite the morbid lyrical content. Give Me A Reason is a sturdy foray into lost love with the guitars predominant amid an Appalachian air while Kings And Cowards opens as if it were a singer/songwriter confessional before a lovely string arrangement weighs in transforming the song into a mock baroque folk song with Bonnie Paine (from Elephant Revival) adding some wonderful harmonies. Bitter Black Coffee is almost a sister song to the aforementioned Potions And Poisons although here it’s a song about the difficulties of resisting temptation.
While there’s much to delight (and to think about) throughout the songs herein the band do offer up two extremely fine instrumentals in the shape of Floodwaters and Bucker (which closes the album). Again there’s a sense of refinement around these, no instrumental abandon but a display of virtuosity in the playing and, most importantly, a real sense of an ensemble who are in touch with each other.