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The Slocan Ramblers – Up The Hill And Through The Fog

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The Slocan Ramblers - Up the Hill and Through the Fog

The Slocan Ramblers

Up The Hill And Through The Fog

Independent

2022

It’s unlikely that most folk would think of Canada if discussions turned to contemporary purveyors of high-class bluegrass music. However, for those in the know, Toronto’s roots trio, The Slocan Ramblers, would figure highly in such conversations.

Juno Award nominee in 2019 and 2020 International Bluegrass Music Awards Momentum Band of the Year winner, the band have gained an enviable reputation, creating an audaciously dynamic sound that, whilst firmly rooted in tradition, has never been afraid to push the envelope. Having built up a head of steam and garnered such a well-deserved reputation, the pandemic brought an abrupt and brutal brake on the momentum that had been created.

The band, Frank Evans, banjo/vocals, Adrian Gross, mandolin/mandola/vocals and Darryl Poulsen, guitar/vocals, now augmented by Charles James, bass/vocals, also encountered personal trauma with Adrian and Darryl both losing close family members, whilst their bass player and founding member Alastair Whitehead decided to step back to spend more time at home, to focus on his family and his new farm. These events appear to have spurred the band on, channelling this adversity into Up The Hill And Through The Fog, their latest album, a truly joyous and uplifting set of 12 tracks. With all but one of the songs on the release being original compositions, and all three members credited, the songwriting process acted as a catharsis to ongoing events and once again confirms the power of music as a salve and balm.

That the group have been prepared to blur musical definitions and boundaries is exemplified from the get-go with the opening track I Don’t Know. An atypical love song, bluegrass is undoubtedly at its nucleus, but a side-swerve sees the introduction of pop influences and elements. Whilst the narrative of

I couldn’t possibly ask for anything more
In these past few years
I hit the pavement and the beers
And it’s taken its toll on me
But you seem to keep me on track
Always scratching my back
Safe and warm from the storms at sea

might evoke an empathetic nod, ”I don’t know, I don’t know what she sees in me” is likely to resonate more personally for most listeners.

You Said Goodbye is an intriguing piece. An upbeat and spirited tune firmly in the traditional bluegrass style, this song was written by Darryl in memory of his late brother. The cognitive dissonance established through using a major rather than minor key and between the subsequent joyous sound of the music and the grief of the personal loss expressed in the tear-jerking lyrics makes for an absorbing listen. Contrast this with another intensely personal track which appears on the set, Adrian’s The River Roaming Song, written after his father’s passing. Here, there is a much gentler, honeyed feel, with lyrics perhaps alluding to life’s constants during times of change, the cycles of the seasons, and the flowing of the rivers.

But as long as you’re at home
And still forever I’m a-roaming
Well, I’m coming back home to you.”

What both songs do have in common is the inalienable power of music to raise spirits, uplift minds and help take one beyond the hurt and suffering to help appreciate how good life can be, even in adversity.  

Won’t You Come Back Home has a similar gentle, relaxed vibe, almost soporific in the plea suggested by the title. A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own, released as a single in March, is the only cover on the album. The trio’s version of this Tom Petty song, the penultimate track on his Full Moon Fever CD, really rocks and is delivered with great gusto.

What follows is Up The Hill And Through The Fog’s first instrumental track, Snow Owl, an upbeat, energetically exuberant tune with fine interplay between the string instruments and an imposing bass solo from Charles. Proof of the musical acuity and dexterity of the band, in terms of their instrumental skills, abounds throughout this release, and on Bill Fernie, the mandolin and banjo work is exemplary, creating a great feeling of bonhomie.

When compared to their previous releases, a difference that seems to be apparent, possibly even before getting to the halfway point of the album, is that the arrangements and production appear to be more complex and involved. Intricate nuances can be heard on each fresh listen, and, in addition to The Ramblers themselves, who arranged all of the music, credit must also be given here to producer Chris Stringer.

The second instrumental track is Platform Four, a bit of a slow burner. The opening banjo and bass figures suggest a lumbering locomotive slowly leaving the station, gradually picking up speed as the music’s tempo quickens and develops to achieve dervish levels of ferocity which left this listener exhausted.

With Streetcar Lullaby, we return to emotionally raw songwriting. Composed by Adrian in February 2020 following a visit to his increasingly sick father where he realised that he wasn’t long for this earth, the song has a beautiful, melancholy charm with glorious old-school harmonies. As Adrian relates, Nothing made sense, and I felt like I had been ground up and spit out. Writing songs can help. There’s a comfort in coming home, and the streetcars are always the first thing I notice when I get back to Toronto – there’s a nostalgia about them, and they’re one of my favourite things about the city”.

Thoughtful track sequencing follows this with another Adrian composition, the lively Bury My Troubles, which does exactly what it says on the tin before we are treated to Harefoot’s Retreat, the final instrumental, the video of which was premiered on Folk Radio here, and described as “another fleet fingered performance and a toe tapper from start to finish underpinned by their bold, dynamic sound”, was inspired by Adrian’s reading of the story of Harold Harefoot, who was briefly, for five years, King of England, reigning as Harold the first.

Bring Me Down Low, another impressive, upbeat offering, this time written by Frank, brings this fine album to a close, although, as Frank reveals, “Originally it had a tightly arranged ending, but when we were getting warmed up in the studio we were so excited to play with one another that we couldn’t bring ourselves to end the jam” it is possible that an extended version may exist.

Up The Hill And Through The Fog is a finely crafted release on which tremendous instrumentals and painstakingly constructed songs succeed admirably in addressing difficult subjects whilst maintaining a keen sense of joie de vivre and optimism, making high energy tracks sound effortless. The album cuts through the fog of the last two years and is their best yet.

Up the Hill and Through the Fog is out on June 10th; pre-order here: 

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