This ‘Steep Canyon Rangers’ article was written by Tom James Putterill, a GIGsoup contributor
It’s unclear which particular steep canyon these boys were ranging, but whilst collaborating in this canyon they have discovered a sound simultaneously philosophical, warm and rambunctious. Nick Sanders ignites the Rangers’ eleventh album with his mellifluous fiddle skills that elevates the opening (and personal favourite) song ‘Radio’ into a spiritual station of nostalgia; before he is joined by his colleagues and the six man band’s record explodes into prominence. Now fifteen years strong, their latest album expresses maturity and improvement – ‘Radio’ teleports the listener to those blissfully primitive periods of discovery –periods of falling in love with a favourite song and being “raised on the sound of the radio”. We are lulled into a relaxing orchestral serenity before the vocals jump into life and we can appreciate the conflicting themes of memory, nostalgia and the very essence of what is being romanticised which is the lively, feel-good sensation we get from the radio and the exciting urge to strut our stuff to the beat of our favourite tunes.
From the innocence of rocking to the rhythm of the radio, ‘Diamonds in the Dust’ describe the downfalls of adult life when “Big dreams are bust”and all that’s left for those with aspirations is “Chasing the silver in the starlight / the diamonds in the dust”. The shift in themes highlights the fluidity found in the Rangers’ new album. It’s not just the subjects of their songs that explore many forms, but also the innovative instrumentals and vocals – the only consistency in this album is the expression of variability.
‘Simple is me’ provides a bashful beat that epitomizes a style that Steep Canyon Rangers have surmounted, laid back fun with good quality musical input – it’s no wonder comedian and banjoist Steve Martin sought the band for collaboration in previous albums and events. Steeped in the deep souths landscape, nostalgia and tradition, it’s a simple but stylish beat. ‘Blue Velvet Rain’ is soft, relaxing, beautiful and complimented by its long strung high pitched instrumentals and almost choir like vocals. While we just think we’re getting “Lost in the blue velvet rain”, ‘Looking Glass’ drags ourselves back up to the dancefloor with this vocal-less jig enticer, with finger burning solos offering due spotlight to the members: Sharp, Guggino, Humprhey III, Sanders, Ashworth and Platt.
‘Down that Road Again’ sutures itself deep into one of the underlying themes of this album of dissatisfaction, regret and taking things for granted. It is monumental if not slow, melancholic and a touch dreary. ‘Break’ introduces vocals with Shannon Whitworth, explores that American landscape pivotal to SCR’s inspiration. Expert elements of the Dobro and excellently executed vocals suggest this track is fit for a high budget video shoot. ‘It’s a cold hard break’ and it’s a cold hard success – a highpoint of the album.
Their sound combines comfort with rapidity and its malleability constantly reveals something fresh and exciting. The themes traverse American geography and ideals of Southern USA; with a sentimental depiction of the joys found through music. The fears of failure and the desperate thirst for wealth that defines Western capitalism are all underlying subjects beneath the surface of a band with the ability to create highly entertaining and innovative music. Their multitude of skills are expertly blended together to create a deliciously palatable hearing. ‘Wasted’ boasts long winded vocals from Woody Platt that draws comparison to that of Harry Nillson.
Radio is drawn to a close with ‘Monumental Fool’ which completes the loop of exploration. They revert to a more striking, ‘monumental’ sound and allude to the triumph of music over greed, corruption and madness of those that “never did nothing for love”.
An incredible opening with ‘Radio’ and a fitting climax with ‘Monumental Fool’, Steep Canyon Rangers have composed a highly structured and successful eleventh album. It’s jam packed with hearty, deep vocals, poetic and symphonic fiddle with racy reinforcement from the guitar, mandolin, bass and box kit. Slightly repetitive and dull in minute places but overall a highly enjoyable and admirable creation. Keep on ranging boys.
‘Radio’ is out now on Rounder Records