There's certainly nothing new about a band using bluegrass as a base for exploring musical territory outside of that genre's rigid boundaries: from New Grass Revival in the '70s to more recent experiments by Sam Bush and String Cheese Incident, the steady rise of Americana has owed much to these acoustic renegades. But the Massachusetts-based quartet Crooked Still, on their sophomore release, establishes themselves as one of the more notable outfits to take the post-bluegrass formula and run with it. For starters, the conventional bluegrass instrumentation is largely dispensed with: guitar and fiddle turn up only sporadically, and mandolin is nowhere to be found. Instead, the root of Crooked Still's melodicism owes to Greg Liszt's virtuosic banjo (the picker was tapped by Bruce Springsteen to perform on his Seeger Sessions tour) and Rushad Eggleston's cello, which also teams up with Corey DiMario's double bass to provide a deeper bottom than ordinarily found in traditional bluegrass. Above it all is Aoife O'Donovan's saintly upper-register vocal, a gift to the album's inventive arrangements both as a lead and harmony instrument. As it opens with a Bill Monroe standard, "Can't You Hear Me Callin'," a listener might expect to hear a typical bluegrass set list, but Crooked Still quickly lays that notion to rest. "Little Sadie," a folk ballad dating to the 1920s, is rendered here as a straight-ahead gutsy blues, a form that underpins much of the album, most effectively on the earthy cover of Robert Johnson's "Come on in My Kitchen." Bob Dylan's "Oxford Town," meanwhile, is given an adrenaline kick and then welded seamlessly into a medley with the ancient Appalachian ballad "Cumberland Gap." The traditional "Railroad Bill" benefits from Liszt's Béla Fleck-like jazzy approach, while the album-closing ballad, "Wind and Rain," is a thing of beauty that relies solely on O'Donovan's stark vocal, Eggleston's mournful cello, and the guest fiddle of Casey Driessen. To their credit, Crooked Still makes no attempt to morph their song choices jam band-style or twist them beyond recognition. They simply take legacy material and, concisely and smartly, play the hell out of it in their own image. Can't beat that.
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AllMusic Review by Jeff Tamarkin