CJ Van Buhler
Hey, wait, that grass is green!
The opening bars of If Sorrows Swim have something of a cinematic feel to them. The road in front of the driver, the listener, is littered with — with what? Leaves? Memories? There’s a conflict up ahead, and, inevitably, things fall apart.
Such is the entry point into the latest chapter in the Greensky Bluegrass saga. Opening cut “Windshield” brings us to southern Michigan, a stand-in for Anywhere, USA, and the epicenter of the band’s brand of music and recording endeavors. If Sorrows Swim carries the flavors of the Midwest and the highway necklaces of the Great Lakes. Wherever the band roams, they bring a bit of the hometown vibes on the road. Bassist Mike Devol, phoning in from the road as winter tour begins, says there’s a lot of good stuff happening among the five-piece these days.
The album dropped last fall, and the process of fitting those songs into setlists has been a fun musical endeavor. Some had already become staples (like “Demons”), others were brand new to the audience. Sonically, the new stuff feels like a genuine continuation and expansion of the ideas presented on 2011’s Handguns, which was recorded at the same place and in the same self-produced way — direct to tape.
“You’re able to maintain a certain amount of intention, but at the same time both of those albums just end up happening the way they happen,” Devol says. “It’s also a statement of who we are at the moment we’re in the studio.” Unexpected sounds flourished alongside the band’s more traditional bluegrass leanings. Their increasingly psychedelic live shows began translating to the studio in 2011, and that feeling continued to buoy the band through 2014.
The new album is tighter overall and, in the words of some of the band’s harder fans, lighter than the sort of edginess exhibited on Handguns. Tying the two albums together is inevitable, but there’s no doubt that If Sorrows Swim represents a band with broader and deeper hopes and goals.
Listen to “The Four,” which is a laid-back picker of a tune that slowly brings all five members onboard for individualized melodies. “What we want in the end is for how we perform something to serve the song — like, why is the song cool? What do we want the feel to be? For the new material, especially the stuff that we hadn’t developed live, it was like a textural product,” Devol says. “The parts fit together and create this texture. That in itself is the charm of the song.”
That method — that technical motif — is something the band borrowed from the likes of electronica and indie rock. As a strings-based band, mining those more unanticipated worlds nets some pretty cool successes in the studio and onstage. That’s something the band cultivates as a group. There’s a bit of trial and error involved, sure, but that’s the point. It’s an experimental approach, mirroring the way the band cracks open its song for improvisational exploration.
The band, for the uninitiated, is an interesting study in duality. Sure, they’re a bluegrass band — mandolin, banjo, dobro, upright bass, acoustic guitar being the instruments at play — but they treat their music like straight-up have-mercy rock ‘n’ roll. And the light show is enough to dazzle even the most staid ‘mericana pickers.
Distancing themselves from both the bluegrass and jam scenes has been an intentional act, though their DNA is intrinsic. The circuitous and simultaneous looping nature of bluegrass compositions lends itself well to the open-ended soloing found more often in jam-oriented rock bands. That’s a fundamental tenet of Greensky’s music and a sharp backbone for their growth.
“The more we play these songs, the more comfortable we are changing them,” Devol says. “It’s like a weird mutation sort of thing that happens in nature. Randomly on one day, on a whim, someone will do something different. And depending on how connected and flexible we are on that day, someone will react instantly to that. All of the sudden, for no particular reason, this song has taken on a new flavor.”
Considering that, for instance, “The Four” is one of those songs that the band hasn’t yet opened up. Rather, the musicians realize how tight and fundamental the song’s composition is with respect to its overall character. Much the same could be said for how they conceptualize the band and their playing as a whole.
To flip the script a bit, and as far as the local aspect goes, this week will see Greensky playing downtown Cleveland for the first time. They’ve rocked the Beachland for years and although they’ll miss out on the new-and-improved Waterloo Road streetscape, Devol is excited about showing the band around the city.