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Yonder Hill – Self Titled

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Band: Yonder Hill
Album: Self Titled
Genre: Bluegrass
Influences: Stanley Brothers, Gillian Welch, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Lucinda Williams, Tim O’Brien, Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs
By: Lee Mellor

 

 

Royal Mountain Music

For a city known for hipster rock (remember that whole “COOL new place for music” plug in some magazine eight years ago?) Montreal boasts a surprisingly talented array of bluegrass acts.  Yonder Hill rises like a proud mountain among them, a summit from which beautiful harmonies cascade.  Their model is simple and ingenious — take the best bluegrass singers and instrumentalists in town, throw them together, and voila: sonorous magic!

Yonder Hill’s self titled 2008 release is a pleasing collection of fifteen acoustic numbers penned primarily by songstresses Dara Weiss, and Angela Desveaux (formerly of The Sonny Best Band) along with a contribution, “Summer Rose”, by Joe Grass.  The band also includes a rendition of local musician Peter Hay’s “Missing Me”, and the traditional “Sweet Heaven When I Die” – once covered by the legendary Doc Watson .  While we’re on the subject, on one occasion I was sitting at a bar with Yonder Hill’s banjonaut Terry Joe Rodrigues when he claimed to have approached Watson and offered to show him his clawhammer skills.  By the time Terry Joe “Banjo” had finished, Watson apparently exclaimed “Boy, that’s the fastest frailing I’ve ever heard!”  If that doesn’t give you some idea of the level of talent in this outfit, I don’t know what will.  Other members of Yonder Hill include the incomparable Joe Grass (dobro, mandolin and pedal steel) whose name is whispered around Montreal’s music scene as if he were some kind of famous gunslinger, violin virtuoso Heather Schnarr, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Horton, and 2011 ECHO songwriting prize winner Katie Moore (acoustic guitar and backing vocals).  So let’s just establish one thing from the get-go: the musicianship here is about as solid as an independently funded Canadian project gets.

Standout solos are Rodrigues’s and Schnarr’s performances on “Working Man’s Song”, Joe Grass’s dobro work on “How I Miss You”, his blistering mandolin on “Sweet Heaven When I Die,” and the tastefully restrained mandolin by Andrew Horton on “Wedding Song.”  Of course, the only people who value solos more than musical interplay are employed at Steve’s Music and/or use Guitar Player magazine as pornography.  What REALLY matters is the instinctive level Yonder Hill collaborates on.  The harmonies by Weiss, Desveaux and Moore are perfectly orchestrated, and Rodrigues and Schnarr never fail to scale things back when necessary, before whipping up a rhythmic fervour.  That I have not commented on Horton’s stand-up bass playing is no affront to his capabilities — the more invisible the instrument is in bluegrass music, the better the player.

With fifteen tracks on the album, I will not be doing a full album review.  Let’s just say that the first four songs on the album are strong and flow seamlessly.  Weiss’s opener “Northern Lights” is by far the catchiest of the bunch: up-tempo, with a hooky chorus and lyrics that anyone who has spent time in the city can relate to.  The theme is a familiar one — the desire to escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life to somewhere remote and bucolic: “All the pushing and shoving don’t ever seem to stop/where did I get this useless urge to shop…I’ll look out at a flock of geese in the sky/the only honks I’ll ever hear.”  This is the track you’ll find yourself playing over and over in your car, in fact, like all good country and bluegrass, the whole album is great audio fuel for a road trip.  A tip of the hat to Schnarr for her simple but effective fiddle theme.  Peter Hay’s “Missing Me” is a great follow-up — one of those tunes that hangs on a single chord for just the right amount of time before changing.  The perfect plotting of the release is where the hook lies.  Angela Desveaux takes over lead vocal on track 3 “Bright Lights”, a wisely included honky tonk ballad supported by Horton’s backing vocals and Joe Grass’s weeping pedal steel.  It’s a tear in the beer song with a nicely written chorus, and serves to keep the album from stagnating on the bluegrass sound.  Weiss returns on “Working Man’s Song”, a dark ballad about the rigours of life as a fisherman.  Here, Rodrigues’s fast-as-Hell frailing gives way to a slower old timey approach to banjo, which I actually prefer.  It’s my third favourite track on the album.

Though I expect those with higher serotonin levels in their brain to disagree, the real standout song on the disc is track 12, Weiss’s “I Can Not Take Your Flowers.”  The melody and words are simple and haunting.  It’s a rare gift to be able to weave a story where the listener can empathize with every character in the song.  Maybe it’s just the writer in me, but I feel that at some point I have been each of these three people:

“I cannot take your flowers dear/I cannot take your ring/I cannot love you like you want/I love another man/You’re kinder than he is for sure/you speak such gentle words/but long ago he held my heart/and never let it go/He’s somewhere far away from here/his words I keep close by/he told me he’d come back for me/when the beast inside him dies/I took some comfort in your arms/I never thought you’d stay/but darling I must ask you now/ to turn and walk away…”

Goosebumps?  If not, there’s plenty of upbeat, foot stomping diddies on the album to keep you drinking and hollering till dawn.  But like the character in “I Cannot Take Your Flowers”, this is the one that grabbed my heart and never let go.  If you’re a fan of bluegrass, old time or acoustic music, do yourself a favour and pick up this album.

 

THE GOOD: Montreal’s finest bluegrass musicians, four lead vocalists with beautiful voices to keep things fresh, a greater variety of styles than many other string bands, some top-notch songwriting, wonderful collaboration at all levels, rhythmically tight, beautiful harmonies, a tasteful approach to playing.

 

THE BAD: Very little: 1) After a perfect succession of four songs the album flow gets a little confused around track 5 and doesn’t recover.  2) The dobro is not loud enough in the mix to truly appreciate Grass’s playing until track 11 when the volume seems to finally find its place. 3) One of the better fast songs on the album “Willie Cline” is marred by a clicking noise, which I took to be the sound of the upright bass being slapped.  Some people dig these kind of imperfections, but I’m not one of them.

 

THE UGLY: With fifteen tracks already under their belt, Yonder Hill could have recorded an additional five, and split this somewhat lengthy album in two.  This would give them twice the merchandise to sell, and would have resulted in a more palatable track order.  Personally, I would have been happy to buy both CDs.

By: Lee Mellor