As the final note fades on the Modern Grass’ latest album City Ghosts, you can’t help but admire the band’s synergy. Three years and five albums together have established an enviable musical kinship among bandmates Donald MacLennan, Adam Pye, Andrew Sneddon, and Tom Terrell. Built on a foundation of bluegrass, folk, and blues, the Halifax, Nova Scotia-based quartet’s cohesion is evident throughout the dynamic picking, fluid ballads, breathtaking instrumentals, and tight harmonies on City Ghosts, a mix of deftly written original and well-chosen traditional material.
That camaraderie allows the Modern Grass to seamlessly switch between a host of styles, ranging from a turbo-charged bluegrass rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s classic “The Way I Feel” to the ’50s rock inspired riffs on “Bird In A Frame” and the gospel blues of the album-closing “Gambler’s Waltz.” Anchored by Pye’s insistent bass, City Ghosts frequently crackles with propulsive arrangements. During solo turns, Sneddon’s dobro skims and dips, fingers dancing against the strings, while MacLennan’s stirring violin playing often provides additional pathos to the questioning observations that flow from Terrell’s pen . The electrifying chops of mandolinist Joe Walsh, nimble banjo style of Wes Corbett, and sweet trills of singer-songwriters Rose Cousins and Jennah Berry further enhance the album. Co-producers Karl Falkenham and Terrell give the players plenty of freedom to shine, but no band member ever upstages another. City Ghosts’ beauty and power lies in the collective strength of the musicians.
A sense of community (or lack thereof) is an important component in the character sketches on the album. The title track details the impoverished existence of several city dwellers whose presence is ignored because others would rather not acknowledge their misfortunes. Reality violently clashes with previous expectations: “These cities they ain’t made of flesh and bone/No, it’s silver and gold and every penny that you own,” Terrell sings wearily, noting that “the streetlights just pass on our dreams.” Interestingly, the narrator doesn’t absolve himself from the troubles that befall fellow citizens; he notes his own reluctance to offer assistance to people who are clearly in need. Neither detached nor preachy, instead Terrell’s lyrics force listeners to critically look inward.
Similarly, a veteran struggling with PTSD also finds himself adrift without support from others in the bleak “Rambo.” While he receives some treatment in the form of government-issued prescription drugs, it is clearly not enough to quell his demons. He continues to self-medicate with alcohol, hoping to still the voices in his head and tremors in his hands. With his wife and friends long deceased, he finds little comfort in the world and questions the scope of God’s compassion. In a final twist, the narrator (who owes his “petty life” to Rambo), comes to better understand the man as he echoes Rambo’s own sentiments: “If God’s so grand/I just can’t understand/Why He’d leave a man/To sink into the sand.” The isolation felt by Rambo is now carried by the narrator, emphasizing that Rambo’s story impacts all around him, whether they recognize it or not.
Loneliness is at the core of the discord between a longtime couple in the ballad “Cold Home.” Their life together is fraught with more tension than either can bear; both attempt to escape, the narrator by roaming the country, his partner by vainly searching for peace of mind. Despite their best efforts, neither can alleviate the heartache.
While all talented individually, it’s the interplay between the musicians that makes City Ghosts such an appealing record. Sneddon’s joyous instrumental “Gold River” offers an exuberant showcase of the pickers’ skills. The band also pays loving homage to its forebearers with spirited takes on “Cannonball Blues” and “Jerusalem Ridge.” Mindful of the past, but firmly situated in the present, the Modern Grass consistently demonstrates its mastery, knowledge, and love of multiple genres.
Above all, the band tackles personal tales of woe, heartbreak, and salvation, and successfully emphasizes their universal appeal. The aforementioned “Gambler’s Waltz” references the troubles of a solitary man, but his concerns and the ultimate resolution to his internal conflict are vocalized in rich harmony. Fittingly, City Ghosts ends with the Modern Grass’ distinct voices melding as one. Just as it should.
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Writer’s note: This post changed quite a bit from its conception to the end. When I first began writing this entry on the Modern Grass I initially planned to post about a vaguely defined idea of freedom. Somehow that morphed into “community.” I’m not all that knowledgeable about bluegrass, but I hope I captured some of the feeling of the record. It really is quite special.