New music for new seasons

Posted: Thursday, September 30, 2010

Yesterday morning, I completed a task I've been avoiding for weeks - winterizing. I pulled the wispy dill, cilantro and flowers I attempted to grow out of their yogurt container pots and sent them back to nature, chucking them into the woods only so far as they would fly.

The tomato plants made a little more distance than the herbs, but they had grown just as feathery. My beefsteak stalks hardly resembled the fruit-bearing mammoths that greeted me during a trip to my mother's house in Anchorage last weekend. Needless to say, she gets a lot more sunlight through her south-facing windows than I do at my spruce-surrounded cabin.

My autumn chores are nothing compared to many people, and the work took all of 10 minutes to complete. Once my goal was accomplished, I brushed the dirt off my sweatshirt, dried the raindrops from my glasses and went inside to warm up with the help of a recent acquisition, Cadillac Sky's "Letters in the Deep," released in June.

I first heard this band while on a long drive with my parents last weekend. Lucky for us, the National Public Radio affiliate in Anchorage can be tuned in almost static-free along the wilderness of the Parks Highway until somewhere between Talkeetna and Cantwell, at which point Fairbanks' equivalent kicks in. Cadillac Sky performed as guests on NPR's "Mountain Stage," where they confidently demonstrated to the audience - and to me - what experimental bluegrass is all about.

They began their "Mountain Stage" set with "Hangman," which I later decided is my favorite song from their June release. Naturally, I couldn't see how they appeared as they played this driving tune on the radio until I found a video of the performance on the Internet and learned that they look just as their sound led me to imagine.

Each of the band's five members are moving. Guitarist David "Mayhem" Mayfield, knees bent and bouncing, shakes his long hair with the beat. His lengthy beard follows suit, creating the first instance of beard banging I may have ever witnessed. Andy "Panda" Moritz shakes his head from left to right, simultaneously dipping his bass up and down in time with machine-like precision. "Thrilla-Fiddla" Ross Holmes twists his body around like a rag being wrung. Matt Menefee tries to balance his side of the stage with Mayfield's, head banging just as passionately as his bandmate, as he pumps out what the band's website describes as "other world banjo playing." In the center of it all, mandolinist Bryan Simpson belts out the tune's lead vocals: "My heart is sick and sweating out of control / my blood is a river running cold ..." The way these fellows are pickin', their sweat is going to flow like a river.

I enjoyed the "Mountain Stage" broadcast immensely, enough to make a note to check out their recordings once I returned to civilization. As with any band, it's hard to compare the liveliness of a stage performance with that of a studio recording; regardless, "Letters in the Deep" makes for truly pleasant listening.

The album is full of great tunes with occasional minute-long interludes scattered throughout the album as if to gracefully take listeners from one piece to the next. "Kiddie Pool Rag" is the shortest and sweetest in my opinion, cramming a whole lot of style into 47 seconds.

"Hangman" features a charming joint bass and banjo solo, followed by some of the best fiddling on the whole album. Other favorites of mine include "Pitiful Waltz," which also features fancy fiddling, and "Part of My Heart," which starts slow but picks up at about halfway to become one of the climactic tracks on the album.

Two songs are sung in reference to obscure biblical characters - "3rd Degree" recounts an experience with the Phoenician princess Jezebel, while "Bathsheeba" addresses the woman remembered as the wife and mother of kings: "I hate who I am when I'm with you / yeah, it might be me but it's probably you."

If you're traveling to the Lower 48 or Canada in the next few months, you may want to investigate Cadillac Sky's profusion of tour dates. If you're sticking around Southeast Alaska for the coming season, you may want to add "Letters in the Deep" to your library. Then, the next time you come inside from the cold or wake up exhausted first thing in the morning, give it a spin and see if it warms you up as much as it did me.

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