Hot Buttered Rum

Limbs Akimbo

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Although they've often been called one, Hot Buttered Rum has never been a traditional bluegrass band. And from this moment on, they won't have to worry about being called one again: with the addition of a drummer, Matt Butler, to their regular string band lineup -- guitarist/vocalist Nat Keefe; fiddler/mandolinist/vocalist Aaron Redner; banjoist/vocalist/flute/sax guy Erik Yates; and bassist/vocalist Bryan Horne -- Hot Buttered Rum has completed the transition they've been hinting at for a while. It's been three years since Well-Oiled Machine, their second album, and two since Live in the Northeast, the album that had some critics replacing the word "bluegrass" with the word "jam." Hundreds of live gigs have sharpened them and focused them and given them ideas they weren't equipped or ready to manifest before. Limbs Akimbo marks an evolution for sure, but it still doesn't assign to HBR an easy category. If a box is truly required, then perhaps country-rock works: there are reminders here of early Eagles (the harmonies of "Turning the Wheel" ), Poco (the good-time "Sexy Bakery Girl" ), and the Flying Burrito Brothers (the driving opener, "Two Loose Cannons"). But just as soon as you think you've pegged them, HBR make a sharp turn and ends up someplace else altogether. "Beneath the Blossoms," one of several tracks featuring Jackie Greene guesting (here on piano, other tracks on organ), is a barroom stomper wherein mandolin, wailing sax, and floating flute each claim equal space. The title track, which closes the set, is built upon African percussion and rhythmic patterns, the musicians intermingling with the fluidity of seasoned jazz players. And "Queen Elizabeth," a soulful ballad that spirals in intensity as it progresses, establishes a new benchmark in songwriting for these still maturing musicians. A quantum leap in songcraft is, in the end, what really marks the development of Hot Buttered Rum -- not only have they gained a drummer, they've expanded their worldview and conception of who they are and can be. The tunes on Limbs Akimbo are more complexly structured, more refined lyrically, more artistic than those of HBR's previous life. Devoted fans will certainly still recognize these as Hot Buttered Rum songs, but Limbs Akimbo is something else, just what this band needed to bring in new admirers.

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