There is a skepticism, perhaps the wrong word…there is an automated assumption made when you see someone with a mandolin in their hands. “Bluegrass” is the name of that assumption and while in most cases you may be correct in jumping to that conclusion the music of Joe K. Walsh expands reaches far stretching from that namesake. Don’t get me wrong, Walsh can and does often times play straightforward bluegrass and is one of the most accomplished mandolinists in modern day folk and roots music but his ability to melt, mold and reshape the music into a form that he has defined through his own artistry is remarkable.
There is an ease and comfort in the way that Joe plays and sings the songs contained here in Borderland. I would hate to think that may lead anyone to believe there isn’t an inherent virtuosity to the songs, because trust me there is. But the way in which they are performed and arranged, sheds any need or desire to play a fury of notes just because any of the players here can. It just feels ‘right’…and thats the best way I can really sum it up.
I have to say my favorite of the bunch is the traditional style infused “Never More Will Roam”. Inspired by S. A. Andree, a man who laid it all on the line for an improbable vision: floating to the North Pole in a balloon, it tells a story while remaining relatable in theme. Walsh’s voice absolutely shines here and the first time I listened to the track my very first thought was “THIS is what the new voice of bluegrass music sounds like”. He doesn’t need any false high and lonesome cry, his voice sits where it does and it just beams with power and light and pays homage to tradition without trying to replicate it exactly. Joe sings with a voice that is all his and adapts the genre to fit him rather than the inverse. I find that to be something incredibly refreshing. And while the structure follows something inherently “bluegrass”, there is this subdued almost wandering, gypsy jazz feeling about the textures and style as well.
The follow up is a great take on the traditional instrumental “Cumberland Gap”. It just breathes life and vibrance in a way that really characterizes Walsh’s playing and this record. Aiming to expand and make traditions more vibrant while infusing your own style into them.
I love a good waltz. The downtrodden and often depressing feel…well it just makes me feel good oddly enough and the “Pine Tree Waltz” is a beautiful example of that. Given the songwriter’s roots in Maine, a fitting title and again with his voice feeling so genuine and real here. It is songs like these that highlight what I mean when I mention Joe’s voice being one of the voices defining modern day bluegrass music and as much as I hate to pigeon hole anyone into a genre, its an important note that should be taken. Even if an artists fall into a certain mold because of instrumentation and prior work, you don’t need to be defined by the past and can pave new roads in the musical landscape.
Joe’s 2011 release “Sweet Loam” left a lasting mark on me the first time I heard it. Describing it as “exceptionally listenable” and having “a sublime texture to the sound”, I am sensing a common thread here. Walsh’s voice bears a strength and resilience to it, but it still has its vulnerabilities that peak through on occasion. Its those brief moments that enable you to see him as the humble and genuine songwriter and performer that he is and that plays an important part in the listening experience. This follow up record is a prime example of an artist who knows what their sound and style is and fully embraces it.
Is it “exceptionally listenable” like its predecessor? Yes, absolutely, but more importantly “Borderland” is just plain exceptional and thats something to celebrate from one of the brightest artists bending the genre of bluegrass music today.