When you gather a mandolin, guitar and fiddle together in front of a microphone, most people are going to think some good ol’ bluegrass is about to start charging out the speakers. For some time, that’s essentially what you would have got from the five members of Nashville’s Front Country.
The group came up in the bluegrass community and scene and won the prestigious band competitions for the Telluride and Rockygrass music festivals in 2012 and 2013. But now, singer Melody Walker, guitarist Jacob Groopman, bassist Jeremy Darrow, five-string violinist Leif Karlstrom and mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz are trying to go new places. Their new album “Other Love Songs” is a subtly experimental record that tests just how far this string-pop band can go.
Front Country came to fruition after members started sitting in with each other on weekly jam sessions in San Francisco. None of the members was a typical bluegrass musician — Karlstrom is classically trained and Groopman came from a world and rock music — but their chemistry translated well in a bluegrass setting and the band soon found success. But whether it was the band members’ myriad backgrounds or the group’s origin in the loose musical environment of San Francisco, Front Country was never going to be just a bluegrass band.
What the group does best is approach acoustic string instruments from a pop perspective. While keeping the instruments in place, it’s replaced the singular, double-time grooves and traditional solos of bluegrass for diverse rhythms and thoughtfully composed sections. As Walker explained to Tahoe Onstage through email, it’s a unique approach that the band has been trying perfect since the start. “(It) has always been a part of what we do, we are just refining and defining it more as we go along. We are trying to create a sound we have never quite heard before,” Walker said.
The band’s debut album, “Sake of the Sound,” was a strong debut that certainly had its moments of acoustic pop perfection, most notably the anthemic title track. “Other Love Songs” is another big step in that direction and the band’s best result from its sonic experiment so far. The arrangements have the varied tones of R&B ballads (“Undone”), earnest rock (“I Don’t Wanna Die Angry”) and country strolls (“If Something Breaks”) unified in a complete musical thought by Front Country’s acoustic instrumentation. The closet you’ll get to straight bluegrass is the instrumental “T.H.A.T.S.,” which is a sunny composition featuring sprightly interplay between Groopman, Karlstrom and Roszkiewicz. You’re not going to hear blistering fiddle breakdowns on this record and that was the point.
“We really pushed it by deciding to all but eliminate the bluegrass groove from this new record and from our new repertoire. The songs themselves are mostly pop song forms, and there are very few solos on the record. Almost everything is an original groove, and arranged much more like pop music than like bluegrass,” Walker said
One of the songs that best exemplifies the leaps Front Country was willing to take is the sultry “G.L.Y.P.” The track is a texturally rich track of Walker’s crystalline vocals cutting through the wooden wispiness of the verses for the punchy chorus, culminating in a dramatic outro from Karlstrom’s charging fiddle. It sounds unlike anything the band has done and certainly originated from a place not many acoustic songs do.
“It really had the biggest transformation out of all the songs, because I had written it on piano and an old-school ’80s drum machine app, and we even started recording it to the drum machine loop. (We) then took it away and found this great acoustic texture on top, inspired by digital instruments but totally analog. Then Adam wrote this sort of classical mini concerto of running triplets over the chords and that became the instrumental section and outro. That section is probably one of my favorite spots on the album,” Walker said.
Considering the band is fond of playing with genre, arrangements and instrumentation, it’s no wonder the creative output that preceded “Other Love Songs” was an album of acoustic covers by the band called “Mixtape.” The group played multi-rhythmic, textural songs such as tUnE-yArDs’ “Bizness” and King Crimson’s “Three of a Perfect Pair” from its acoustic base. Walker is all about keeping an open mind to new musical experiences and she would be more than happy to have Front Country’s songs given a makeover like that by someone in a whole new musical tone. It would be the opposite side of the same coin.
“I’ve always been interested in hearing Front Country’s songs remixed. I know, for instance, that us doing an acoustic cover of tUnE-yArDs’ or King Crimson has opened new fans up to those bands simply through the change in instrumentation. It allowed them to hear the song differently. So why wouldn’t it work the other way? EDM fans getting turned on to Front Country through a dub step remix. We are into it!” Walker said.
What Front Country has shown with “Other Love Songs” is that it is willing to look at traditional instruments and approach them from a whole new perspective for a whole new sound. When you can think outside the box like that, you can go about as far as your creativity can imagine.
- Front Country
‘Other Love Songs’
Top tracks: ‘Good Side,’ ‘O Heart Breaker’
Release: April 5, 2017
Label: Crossroads Label Group
- Live shows
— 10 p.m. Friday in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Red Room
— Noon Saturday at the Peaks and Paws Festival in Squaw Valley