Sweetwater String Band are a four piece who formed in 2008 in the Mammoth Lakes area of California. Their music is inspired by their local area, the ‘wild deserts and high mountains’ of the east of the state, which leads to some very vivid and interesting features of their music and songwriting. River Of Rhymes, which features all new songs from the band (Dave Huebner, cello; Jeff Meadway, guitar; Scott Roberts (latterly of Durango, CO), mandolin and Patrick Ferguson, bass), and, according to the band’s materials, contains ‘introspective revelations, vivid natural imagery, political commentary, (and a) tribute to Doc Watson’.
On the new record, the band have created a work of both intimacy and wide-scale, cinematic vistas. A work which juxtaposes serious insight and commentary with bright, often jaunty, almost athletic arrangements. The intimacy and seriousness of the introduction to the opener, The Weather She Breaks is superseded by the band picking up the tune and running with it. The sound has a definite ‘classic’ edge to it, but this is coupled with a feel which is very much personal to the band and their influences, those of the natural environment, which surround them. As soon as the album starts, you feel as though both it, and the band who have produced it, are a one-off. Huebner’s signature cello adds layers of depth to the opening track, as his involved bow work adds both tempo and melody to the song’s tale of traveling, wandering, and returning.
Empty Road’s intriguing lead vocals and high harmonies are counterbalanced by a driving tempo, and the song is the first in a series of moments which illustrate how the bands arrangements work so well. The sound is deep and earthy, with all parts functioning as a well-balanced unit. The songs work because the band does, and vice versa.
The aforementioned tribute to the late Mr Watson, Doc’s Waltz is a lovely, lilting, smiling tribute to the man who brought joy to so many. The cello floats over and above its musical compatriots, showing off the SSB’s new and different string band music – an uncanny combination of old and new, South East and North West. It’s relaxing, almost beguiling tone is offset by its commentary on environmental and social situation – and this is not the last time the album will visit this juxtaposition.
A bright, sprightly tune interacts with a song of localness, local knowledge and attitude and the imposition of outsiders and the environmental damage and destruction which this can lead to on They Turned The Mountains Upside Down. The importance of staying honest and true is driven along by strong, powerful accompaniment, and this theme is continued on Flood, albeit to a slower, more creeping tune, as we are warned about what is happening now, and of the power of nature over everything, even man.
Workingman’s Blues shows the band’s passion for true stories told through observance and the understanding of what is really happening in the world. One way of resisting the destruction of our locales is by highlighting these transgressions through the measures of writing songs and singing them – that is why it is important for as many people as possible to hear this song, this record and this band.
The Sweetwater String Band are an incredibly together unit, and understand their music and each other. Their playing, and their harmonies, are intuitive, and they display a great deal of respect for what they are doing. The ups and downs of life are discussed on What Goes Up, with flowing cello, light, sparkling mandolin and good back up from bass and guitar. We are reminded that despite disagreements, we all share ground, and everyone is the same in the end.
A neat touch of banjo pops up on It’ll Be OK, a loving, tender tribute to a partner which really sums up the togetherness of the band – another constant theme of the record, both in terms of the music and the contents of the songs.
Tossin’ and Turnin’ has a really well-worked and interesting, toe-tapping tune which rises and falls as the beat keeps going and the various instruments weave in and out. It reveals the variety of moods which the band have captured on River Of Rhymes, exploring what they can do and what works – and it all works really well. Closer A Million Miles has some more beautiful banjo, as it drives along in a Chatham County Line style. The words recount life in a band, on tour and on the road – full of wide expanses and close, intimate playing and harmonies.
River Of Rhymes is one of those records which are instantly likeable, a truly worthy listen. The songs are great, their playing immaculate, and their approach and subject matters fascinating. The band have an interesting sound, diverse and different.
Be sure to catch them on the road when you can, more information on their touring plans can be found at: http://www.sweetwaterstringband.com/