Much has changed since my review of Volume Five’s 2018 release Milestone. Hell, much has changed since Volume Five performed the 2019 Grass Valley Father’s Day Festival. Of course, I am strictly discussing Volume Five. Besides their lineup changes and new album has anybody recognized any jarring changes within the last few months? No? Didn’t think so. Causing ripples throughout the bluegrass universe, mandolin specialist and indecisive wayward wanderer Adam Steffey joined Volume Five moving former mandolinist Jacob Burleson to guitar. In general, this seems like a benefit. While Steffey is personally not my favorite mandolin player, it is impossible to dismiss that he is the most influential mandolinist in the twenty first century besides Chris Thile. In contrast to a double-stop and heavy right hand style similar to the one originated by Monroe and continued by Compton, Steffey’s style is extremely single eighth note heavy and moves the mandolin closer to the sound of a Bill Keith break than a Kenny Baker solo. While the addition of Steffey doesn’t diminish the effect of the album, the lack luster songwriting does.
In contrast to For Those Who Care to Listen, Milestones was a band closer to its original lineup and still seemingly on the rise after almost ten years in the business. My comments on that album were extremely positive, and I was expecting that the song writing quality would evolve and improve along with their professional standing. While the addition of Steffey shows a certain economic security, the song-writing on this album is flat, conventional, and forgettable.
The differences between the opening tracks contextualize this issue. The first track of Milestones “Just Beyond the Window” takes a conventional song theme of the husband wanting revenge on his lover and friend cheating together, but adds certain extra details such as what murder strategies would be appropriate and the realization that cheating itself is not punishable unless one takes it into their own hands. “All the Way to the Bottom” takes the inverse of the previous theme,
wanting to die when your woman cheats on you, but the imagery is never beyond the most banal and obvious. A grave, or a person “Being blue, blue, blue, all the way to the bottom” doesn’t give the audience anything to grab on to.
In another unjustifiable decision, the second track carries the same bluesey, modal sound as the previous track. The issue? This sound only appears once more on the album with the second last to track “The 15th of October.” Think of any other art form’s equivalent to this decision. If one is preparing a meal with many appetizers and desserts etc. does one send out a chicken pasta followed by a different kind of pasta? A Lemon sorbet followed by a lime? No. you send out a soup and a salad, a piece of meat and vegetables, a sorbet and a piece of cake. Contrasts instigates better questions and judgements out of the listener. It is ridiculous that a portion of my reviews still need to mention this seemingly elementary idea that has been around since Ancient Greece.
Reapplying certain moods with lesser lyrics is not the worst thing one could do. Songwriting is a process and it doesn’t always end well. It is also an extremely subjective art form where personal experience carries the most weight. Smirk at me all you want, but I have personally been more affected by the songwriting of Dave Simonett than Bob Dylan: I know I am wrong, but I can’t help but personally feel this way. But “Wings of a Song,” the last track on the album takes the faults of this album’s songwriting to the nth degree. When I first heard this song, I knew it sounded like something, but I didn’t figure it out until a while later what song it reminded me of. It reminded me of “Poet With Wings” a song released by volume five on Milestones. With a similar tempo, mood and chord progression this just rings of self plagiarism to the point of hilarity. The only thing worse than conventional imagery is repeated, unchanged imagery, and these two songs have that.
Instrumentally and vocally, the album is satisfactory. Neither of these aspects, unless one is a big fan of Glen Harrell voice, was ever the selling point of this band. Their strength was finding strong
material like “Tea Top Payne” and committing to the moods established in that material. Without good material to delve into, Volume Five sounds aimless.