Prescription Bluegrass CD Review–The Hillbenders

Image634945188679664065THE HILLBENDERS – CAN YOU HEAR ME

Label: Compass Records

Released: September 2012

By: W.J. Hallock

One of the definitions of “Symbiosis” is: “A close, prolonged association between two or more different species that is mutually beneficial to each member.” Yep….. that sounds like THE HILLBENDERS to me! “SYMBIOTIC!” Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves’ screamin’ dobro benefits from Mark Cassidy’s high wattage, parallel banjo licks, while Mark’s banjo benefits from Nolan Lawrence’s hot and tasty mandolin chops. Nolan’s mandolin benefits from Jim Rea’s enthusiastic guitar, just like Jim’s guitar benefits from his cousin, Gary Rea’s thunder storm driven upright bass, and Gary’s bass, in turn, churns right back around under the current of Chad’s dobro. Around and around they go, five different “Species” of instruments bouncing in and out of each other‘s space for their mutual benefit! Simply put, this band is so tight they probably all breathe in unison!

There’s a very amazing thing that happens when a band becomes this close….. unless the listener is really paying attention, it can be hard to tell exactly which instrument is playing when! The pickup notes from the banjo over riding the end of a dobro line can be so fast and precise that you can’t tell when one ends and the other begins. Even the tone of each instrument becomes similar….. the individual sounds of the dobro and the banjo together then almost make a third unique sound all it’s own! And when the guitar and bass are so rhythmically solid under the solos and the mandolin is playing right ON that off beat, that all powerful FEEL, that has to be earned, with years of practice and live performances, suddenly takes on a life of it’s own and you have….. MAGIC!

There are two instrumentals on The Hillbenders new CD, “CAN YOU HEAR ME?“, and both of them will blow the listener away. Image634945208542270141The first one, “Gettysburg,” by Chad Graves and Mark Cassidy, starts off as a mellow, jazzy tune, and as you’re getting into the mood of the song, at about the three and one half minute mark, all at once, the band explodes! Hold on, because it’s a good one! The other instrumental, “Clutch,” by Mark Cassidy, starts off fast and just keeps motorin’ all the way through. It really shows off all the band’s hot licks, but it may be just a skosh too fast! When intonation problems rear their ugly heads, it’s time to tinker with the tempo…….

As much time as the band must have spent on the instrumental side of these song arrangements, it’s obvious that they spent just as much time on the vocal tracks. Their harmonies are lush, full, dynamic and exciting. I love the fact that they have paid fastidious attention to all the small details that individualize their singing. Those bluegrass vocals are there, but, they’ve been intertwined with a hint of pop, Doo Wop and R and B inflections. A lot of musical influences come into play in the entire “Hillbender” sound.

Mark Cassidy sings lead on two of the twelve tunes, the first, “Town Away,” a catchy original written by bassist Gary Rea. The second is my favorite cut on the CD, and Mark proves his vocal talents are just as hot as his banjo licks. The old Hal Ketchum country hit, “Past The Point Of Rescue,” written by Irish song man Mick Hanly, is not only expertly done, but in the middle of the song it morphs into a strange south of the border “fiesta” aria sung in Spanish by Nolan Lawrence with an operatic fervor and flair, and then it goes back to Mark to sing it out. It’s a show stopper in their LIVE show, and it’s exuberance is captured on this recording, also.

According to Nolan, all they did was take the chorus from the song, change the 2/4 time signature to a Latin beat and have some fun with it…… then jump right back into the original song they started with. RIGHT! Easy as pie, and not a problem if you’re The Hillbenders! Improvisation, the chops to pull it off, a sense of timing and adventure and VOILA….. an arrangement that sizzles! I LOVE IT!

Guitarist Jimmy Rea sings lead on four of his original songs. “Radio,” with all the guys singing an a cappella ending that is extremely affective at showcasing their harmonies, “Spinning In Circles,” with a good metaphoric story line and more good harmony to go along with super wide open pickin’ at break neck speed. “Heartache Thunderstorm,” has a down home, good timey feel that will make you want to get up and dance. It has a hypnotic instrumental hook line that the boys play in and around with precision and dexterity, as does the aptly named final cut on the CD, “Game Over.”

Image634938367010025187To have your CD considered for review, contact: W.J. Hallock ~OR~ Dan King for specific submission and mailing instructions.

All four are good, solid well written songs, and Jimmy sings them with power and authority. Jim has an expressive voice all his own, and he steps right up to the microphone and handles the spotlight with ease. In listening to his writing, it seems as though he doesn’t write them as vehicle’s to make himself more visible, but rather to find ways to give his “compadres” plenty of room to stretch out and shine. Songwriting can be a self gratification tool, and songwriters can sometimes be an egotistical lot, but Mr. Rea doesn’t seem to have that mindset….. It is very refreshing to find a writer that puts his talents into the mix in a way that makes the entire unit sparkle! The Hillbenders wouldn’t have the sound they do if Jimmy’s songs weren’t included.

Nolan Lawrence….. to put it bluntly, has that same “IT” factor in his voice that Roy Orbison and Raul Malo both share. The power, control and strength that comes from way down deep in the diaphragm. World famous operatic vocalists have it, too. That ability isn’t something you just learn how to do…. you have to be born with that talent! Nolan sings just one of his own originals, “Broken Promises,” and it’s a goody! Again, the boys play with the songs timing, cutting it in half and then kicking it right back up to finish it off with a flourish. The other three he sings here are definitely HIS also! His “IT” factor kicks in and the songs become Nolan Lawrence property. Image634945216595230744I checked out the original “Romantics” version of “Talkin’ In Your Sleep,” on YouTube and it is insipid and wimpy compared to The Hillbenders version. “Train Whistle,” and “Concrete Ribbon” are the first two songs on this CD, and what a way to kick things off!

I was lucky enough to see The Hillbenders LIVE at “The Blue Door” in Oklahoma City back before this CD came out, and I can tell you that that Hillbender MAGIC is a living, audio-visual entity, an entity that through the wonders of technology AND the sheer amount of talent and focus these guys possess, has been captured in the studio on their latest release “CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?”

Produced by Bill VornDick at Mountainside Audio in Nashville, the technical side of this release is first class all the way. The vocal tracks are just plain SWEET! Every voice is clear and alive in the mix. All the instruments sound bright and punchy, especially Gary’s bass and Jimmy’s guitar. When Nolan is playing a snappy rhythm line, his mandolin almost pops like a snare drum. Nothing is lost in the mix, there’s good separation, but it all sounds like the instruments were mixed a little hot. The reason I say that is because my very first knee jerk reaction was to reach over and turn the volume up when the vocals on the very first song began…. Maybe it’s just my old ears, but the entire CD sounds like the vocals are half a notch low compared to the instruments. That’s a very small thing to quibble about with a CD this good musically and technologically….what’s most important about the production is that Mr. VornDick captured that Hillbender’s LIVE personality!

In this review, I have used just about every adjective I know to describe just how good this band is, except one…… and that would be tenderness. No where did I hear the guys pour their vocal magic into a soft, heartfelt ballad. The Hillbender’s have a MUST SEE show, filled with exuberance and fun, but I’d love to hear them all gather around one microphone (which they have won awards doing!) and sing just one song sweet, warm and intimately to show the world another side of their talents.

Yep….. Go get this CD!! Wear it out, and make sure to see The Hillbenders if they are playing anywhere close to you.

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