Sam Bush once said that Bill Monroe was the ultimate feel player. It’s a backhanded compliment in a way, despite Bush’s clear reverence, because what he was saying was that Monroe lacked melodic precision, playing more to rhythm. He was the father of bluegrass, true, but he was no Mike Marshall or Chris Thile. They are precise, play long runs of clear notes, and have timing like a clock. It’s fun to wonder what Monroe might think of them or, even better, bands like Mile Twelve who, well, are precise. Onwards is their second release, though feels a bit like the first, given that it’s the first full length, fully formed album. The players are young, and whippersnappers all. They met at Berklee and the New England Conservatory. It’s fun to wonder what Monroe might think of that as well, with bluegrass taking a place within musical academia alongside classical music and jazz.
But there is a delight in precision—in clear tones, rather than ancient ones—crafted with care and, dare we say it, elegance. I don’t think the band members here would use that word, but I think it’s apt. The joy within the music that these players are making derives less from the drive—though there are flashes of that—than from the beauty of the tonality and the sublime craftsmanship. Which is why, perhaps, the best moments on the album are the instrumental tracks. There are only two—“Wickwire” and “Old Tom”—but I wish there were more. The vocals aren’t yet at the level of the instrumentation, though no doubt that will come in time. Likewise, some of the narrative material jars with what we know of the musicians. The voice in “In the Shade” (“I was so much younger then/I couldn’t comprehend/the means to a brighter end/so I cast it to the side”) is unconvincing, perhaps given the delivery, but also just in the fact that we know that, with a voice sounding so young, the time frame isn’t possible, nor the wisdom supposedly gained.
Like any young band, there is a phase of playing to the influences, and I think there’s some of that here. As you might expect, they clearly have learned at the feet of the third and fourth generation players more than the first and second. “Old Tom” recalls Nickel Creek’s “Ode to a Butterfly, “In the Shade” recalls the Punch Brothers, with the shifts in rhythm and vocal register. There are flashes of earlier influences, and there’s a bit of Del McCoury’s in “The Sunny Side of Town.”
They do it so well, but, perhaps again like any young band, it feels like they haven’t yet found their own voice and are casting about a bit. The unit is so strong, so studied, so clearly aware of all aspects of the genre. In addition to the instrumental pieces, standouts include “Call My Soul” and “You Don’t Even Know It Yet.” This album is a true debut for the band, and given where they’re starting from, it will be very interesting to see where they go and what they get up to. Certainly, this is a band to keep an eye on.