Flatt Lonesome Never Kicks it into High Gear on Silence in These Walls
Flatt Lonesome has always been an enigma to me. On one end they are some of the most innovative, young and energetic musicians out there, on the other hand, their biggest strength is their three part vocals which hindered their song selection early in their careers. Their first albums ‘Too and Flatt Lonesome’ rotate between similar song styles throughout the album, and don’t do much but present their talents in a vacuum of their own choosing. It felt like ‘Runaway Train’ was a symbol that they had finally figured it out. Songs like “Still Feeling Blue” and “Don’t Come Running” represented the middle between the blues and the emotionally drawn out three-parters. Sadly, ‘Silence in These Walls’ resorts to old habits, and the song selection undermines the vocal and instrumental talent that this group clearly possesses.
That being said, the 2017 IBMA Vocal Group of the Year sure can execute a tear jerker. “It’s Just Sad” has the ability to make time stand still. Each word out of Kelsi Robertson Harrigill’s voice is incredibly urgent and sincere. “I still make enough for two cups of coffee even though I know I’m drinking alone” is a deceptively simple line that encapsulates the song almost as much as “But I’m alright, It’s just sad without you here”. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful right-hand work of Buddy Robertson on guitar, who gracefully flows over the progression leaving the listener willing to go along for the ride. And as only songs like “It’s Just Sad” merit, and only some vocal groups can execute, the key change for the last chorus is spellbinding. The issue is that they attempt to pull the same heartstrings on numerous occasions. “Gently Tell Me Goodbye” and “Falling” have very similar slow tempos and minimalist accompaniment that sounds more forced than natural.
These errors could be forgiven if there were actual contrasts to these sensitive tracks, but the high energy tracks are lacking. “Build Me a Bridge” has a good groove and Danny’s drawl works on the track, but the accompaniment seems disingenuous and forced rather than the natural reaction that the groove presents. And the decision to resort back to normal bluegrass rhythm for a verse then return to the groove seems silly at best and distracting at worst. Again, their vocals almost save the day. Buddy’s vocal riffs near the end return to the chorus in a such an ingenuous way I had to listen a couple times to make sure they actually pulled that off.
This album also contains possibly my favorite song, and definitely one of the most sentimental. “Highway of Pain”, a track I first heard at 3 years old off of Del McCoury’s ‘Train Wreck of Emotion’ album, is an obvious candidate to mash and Flatt Lonesome does it admirably. Again, Buddy’s vocal timbre fits the song incredibly well and you can tell he’s having a bunch of fun executing the riffs; let alone his guitar break which should basically be considered the standard for mid-tempo blues guitar solos. Especially his closing riff, which no matter how many times it is done will never get old to my ears. Sadly, the right hands of both Robinson sisters on fiddle and mandolin respectively leave a lot more to be desired for the amount of force and energy the song consists of.
Flatt Lonesome, like other bands enjoys putting a couple gospel songs on their album. The difference is that these guys find some darn fun ones. “Happy ‘Til He Comes” has the classic 1-5-1-4 and an infectious groove that is executed to a tee by bassist Dominic Illingworth. The highlight of this song is the awesome call and response work between banjo player Paul Harrigill and dobro player Michael Stockton. The key: end your statements on the third or fifth of the actual landing note, that allows your partner to resolve what you started instead of it seeming like two separate solos attacking each other.
In relation to ‘Run Away Train’ this album is a disappointment, but it’s not like the whole band took up smoking and got their fingers cut off. The decision to never go over 120 bmp was clearly an artistic decision that they believed they could pull off. I believe many will think they have, but diversity is a desirable trait for more modern bluegrass bands and this album lacks in that department.