With their purist chops, lively interplay, lush four-part vocal harmonies and original songwriting that blends the best of decades of oldtime bluegrass and Americana, Della Mae represent everything that’s good about newgrass. Many of the songs on their latest album This World Oft Can Be bring to mind the similarly purist all-female Americana trio, Red Molly. The whole thing is streaming at youtube.
It opens with the upbeat, bouncy Letter from Down the Road, frontwoman Celia Woodsmith’s soaring vocals and Kimber Ludiker’s incisive, tersely direct fiddle front and center – as she does on most of the tracks here, Ludiker stays mostly in the resonant low to midrange of her instrument. The second track, Maybelline (rhymes with “behind,” more or less) picks up the pace with a bit of a Britfolk tinge, Jenni Lyn Gardner’s spiky mandolin and another impactful fiddle solo. Empire takes a turn in a considerably darker direction, a grimly detailed, John Prine-ish portrait of a decaying rust belt town.
Hounds of Heaven sets an apprehensive Nashville gothic mood that never rises: although the old sailor in the tale insists that it’s not his time to go, by the time the third verse kicks in, he’s thinking about drowning. The aphoristic Ain’t No Ash has the feel of an Appalachian classic, with some richly mingling tradeoffs between Ludiker and guitarist Courtney Hartman’s nimble flatpicking as it winds out:
Love is a precious thing, I’m told
Burns just like West Virginia coal
But when the fire dies down, it’s cold
There ain’t no ash will burn
The most chilling number here is Heaven’s Gate, a bitterly ghostly tale that begins with the fiddle mimicking the ominous low resonance of a steel guitar, then eventually goes doublespeed. Is this about a suicide, a murder, or both? Either way, it’s a great story.
Turtle Dove kicks off as a reel and then hits a brisk bluegrass rhythm, with nimbly flatpicked guitar and handoffs to the other instruments down the line – with its sad, symbolic bird imagery, it’s a dead ringer for a classic folk song from the 1820s. A swaying oldschool-style bluegrass tune, Pine Tree explores a vividly rustic southern milieu, lit up by yet another purposeful, emphatic fiddle solo. The band follows that with a slowly waltzing, rather atmospheric ballad, Like Bones.
This World has a brooding, hypnotic Britfolk quality that finally lifts a little as the chorus turns around, a metaphorically-loaded narrative of the perils of growing old…but there’s light at the end of this tunnel. The slow, lingering final track, Some Roads Lead On sounds a lot like the old folk standard Wild Mountain Thyme, but without the syncopation. With just two guitars and some absolutely gorgeous lead and harmony vocals, it evokes Hungrytown at their most bucolic, a good way to end this eclectically original and disarmingly charming album. The band will be on spring tour starting on February 22 at NEU Hall in Chicago.