The Howlin' Brothers

Trouble

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Often, progressive bluegrass gets mired in its own ambition, seeming affected whenever it asserts its roots or tackles the present. That's not the case with the Howlin' Brothers. How does this Nashville trio sidestep such pitfalls? It's through sheer kinetic joy, a quality that was evident on their 2013 debut, HOWL, but thrives on its 2014 sequel, Trouble. Once again, Brendan Benson -- a colleague of Jack White who is known for his exceptionally well-crafted power pop records -- produces the band and he favors a crackling live feel, emphasizing the Howlin' Brothers' loose, natural chemistry that, in turn, suggests their versatility. Unlike so many bluegrass groups, chops aren't the priority for the Howlin' Brothers -- they prefer groove and feel, to bounce ideas off each other and their various guest musicians. This doesn't mean they can't solo -- they can and they do often throughout Trouble -- but Benson and the band accentuate interplay, which means this is a visceral record, engaging just as music. Also, this emphasis on instrumentation allows the band to wander away from bluegrass -- "World Spinning Round" is straight-up honky tonk, as is "Troubled Waltz," while "Louisiana" brings the group down to the bayou and the opening "Pour It Down" would be a blues-rocker with other instrumentation -- and it also gives it a tangible, pleasurable quality as a record that demands several listens. Those revisits reveal that in addition to sounding good, Trouble is exceptionally well constructed, with the group crafting roots songs that allow the trio to casually showcase its knowledge and skill. Those songs provide the structure for the album and, presumably, a killer live set, but the nifty thing about Trouble is that it swings and sparks like a concert and it retains that energy on repeated plays.

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