For The Time Being mixes a wealth of traditional influence with a desire to take old sounds in new directions.
Bluegrass was born out of numerous musical traditions. Tying together elements of American folk music, gospel and old time fiddling with the undeniable influence of Appalachian, Scottish, Irish and other European traditional musics, bluegrass has always been a melting pot for time tested songs and melodies. It is a forum for the amalgamation of roots music’s far reaching branches. That is it, in a nutshell. But within this open structure of experimentation, bluegrass exists largely within two camps – the traditionalist and the modernists. The former sticking close to the purest template set out by Bill Monroe and his band, and the latter seeking to continue the concept of fusion that led to the birth of bluegrass in the first place. Both admirable and worthy quests in their own right.
The Montgomery Street Band definitely belongs in the second category. While holding undeniable respect for the music’s founding fathers, this Fredericton-based quartet have never shied away from the influence of genres outside of roots music’s diverse makeup. With their latest album, For The Time Being, the band brings elements of classical, jazz, and maybe even a little psych rock into the bluegrass template.
For The Time Being is the first recording to document the group’s current lineup which includes founding members Liam Keith-Jacques on guitar and vocals, Patrick Gushue on mandolin, fiddle and vocals, and Scott Michaud on banjo and vocals. Jason Flores, the group’s newest member, rounds things out with his voice, his compositions and his album defining bass tone which serves as both an anchor and a catalyst for the band’s sophomore effort. But it is the sum of all parts that truly makes this album work. Each of these four musicians find equal footing across these twelve tracks with their distinct voices and instrumentation contributing greatly to the recording’s overall variety and ultimately, its strength.
The album opens with the song Horse Race. I can’t think of an opening track that perfectly sums up an entire album and band the way this one does. Starting off as a standard sounding bluegrass number, the song perfectly sets up a traditional sound before completely flipping it on its head. There are harmonized vocals and plenty of solos that kick in with the standard three-step climb that serves to introduce each new featured voice, beit guitar or mandolin in this case. But things get a little weird somewhere near that back half when a wash of atmospheric sounds, effect drenched vocals and reverse loops bring the song’s momentum to a standstill. For a hot minute, it feels almost like the band jumped into a pool and left the mics running. The break lasts just long enough to let listeners know they are in for a different kind of bluegrass experience. It’s a perfect set-up for what is to come.
There are moments on this record when the Montgomery Street Band almost sound like a Celtic group masquerading as a bluegrass band. Particularly on the album’s instrumental tracks. Li’l Subi and Toss It In The Stew sound a lot like a cross between the old time fiddling traditions of rural New Brunswick and something lifted from a Sunday afternoon jam session in a Cornish pub. The presence of both these sets is magnified by the band’s constant flirting with a bluegrass backbeat without ever truly committing to that familiar “unn-chuck-a, unn-chuck-a” foot stomp that feels like it is about to blow through the door at any minute. But it never does, and the tension is palpable.
Big Fluffy Snow and The Companion Plant Waltz, the other two instrumental tracks, are among the album’s strongest in terms of composition, tone and performance, both serving to showcase the group’s broader interpretation of the bluegrass idiom as a forum for experimentation and play.
These four instrumental tracks compliment the wealth of original songs on the album, with contributions coming from each of the group’s four members. With odes to acapella working songs, love songs and songs that touch on finding the good in every situation, the lyrical themes on For The Time Being are standard folk fodder delivered with heart and a contemporary feel.
Of these songs, You’re Up All Night, and Get Goin’ On are probably the album’s most complete in terms of bluegrass structure. The harmonies are strong, and the solos stronger. The Modern Lumberman’s Alphabet is destined to become a staple in the New Brunswick folk canon, as is Thanks, a song of gratitude to the past and present.
This brings us to the album’s closer, A.I. (Space Elevator Suite, Op. 2018, No.2). To call this song the outlier of the album falls far too short in describing just how out there this song really is when compared to everything else on the album. Upon arriving at this point in the listening experience, that soupy transgression in the opening track makes a lot more sense. Foreshadowing? I don’t exactly know. But I do know this: A.I. (Space Elevator Suite, Op. 2018, No.2), with its roll-off-the-tongue title, is not the climax anyone would expect this album to reach. Layered computer generated vocals, frantic solos, and recurring themes plot the structure for this track which seems to serve as a release of tension as much as it does an all-in playground for each musician (including album producer Alan Jeffries) to take a turn, tradition be damned.
As a unit, the Montgomery Street Band have yet to harness the jaw dropping precision that defines many a bluegrass album. But it’s the feeling of anticipation among each of the band’s four members that really pushes this album to the next level. At times they feel like they are riding the edge of their individual abilities, yet still hungry for more. And that’s what makes this album work so well. When the speed is up and the harmonies are high you can actually feel these four musicians pushing themselves and each other to go fast, go higher, go further. It is an exciting ride.
If Keith-Jacques, Gushue, Michaud and Flores were already playing at the height of possibility, For The Time Being would just be another bluegrass album. But it isn’t. Thankfully, it is so much more.