The short version: The Infamous Stringdusters opt for looser arrangements and lighter stakes on ‘Rise Sun,’ and it can’t help but feel like a slight step back for the band.
- Favorite tracks: “Planets,” “Truth and Love,” “Comin’ Again,” “If You’re Gonna Love Someone,” “Cloud Valley”
- Least favorite track: “Wake The Dead”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: Let’s be honest – albums where artists reflect on the current state of affairs in the world have seen a rapid increase over the past few years. Of course, the approach to each project is different. Some artists are more visceral in their deliveries. Meanwhile, some artists don’t know what to do or say, an act of being caught off-guard rather than being nonchalant.
With their new album, Rise Sun, the Infamous Stringdusters wanted to craft a project that would give hope for something better. In other words, this sounded like a slight departure from 2017’s Laws Of Gravity where the stakes were higher. As someone who enjoyed that album and didn’t want to see them stifle that momentum, I walked into their new album with slight trepidation, especially since it was their creative stroke of genius that made Laws Of Gravity one of my favorite albums of 2017.
As for the verdict, the best way to describe Rise Sun is that it feels like the band needed to get this out of their systems. With the band members reportedly throwing their own individual perspectives into the fold, it’s hard not to see Rise Sun as a collection of songs rather than a full album, even despite the excellent sequencing.
Over their past few albums, the Infamous Stringdusters were moving even farther in an “experimental” direction, opting for unconventional melodies, grooves and even lyrical content. Rise Sun, on the other hand, feels like a return to their roots, with more nods to classic bluegrass than before. Now, as someone who was on board with their zanier presentation, it’s tough not to hear the standout tracks that go in that direction and just wish they had stuck with it across the board. For a band that was opting for something brighter and bigger, they do manage to find that happy balance, but only in spurts.
Right from the opening title track, it’s easy to get on board with this album. The rapid handclaps lead nicely into a bluegrass-meets-gospel number. On “Planets,” one of the band’s best songs, the warm minor chords and progressions of the fiddle and dobro allow for a track where the stakes are a bit meatier and interesting. The moment the crescendo kicks in before that chorus and that rollicking groove gets to ride off the hook, you know you’re in for one of the best musical moments of the year. And that’s on top of the many fantastic solos of that track.
That’s essentially the formula for the other standout tracks – huge crescendos rolling off heavy grooves that keep you focused throughout. “Cloud Valley” is meant to be more of a precursor to “Truth and Love,” but it’s damn excellent enough to stand on its own. But when we do get to “Truth and Love,” it’s a cathartic moment. The skittering banjo pickups once again lean on a huge chorus for an excellent closer to the album.
Granted, that’s the Infamous Stringdusters’ bread and butter in terms of their best assets. But even in terms of their lyrical content, they were also making improvements in this area as well. Here, again, this is an album meant to be uplifting as shown through the perspectives of every member. But that also means that the content can run together and grow stale rather quickly. “Another Night” mainly focuses on how one more night together will save a broken relationship … somehow. But the uplifting metaphors are also relegated mostly to clichés and never really lead to anything interesting, thematically.
But that’s also why the best moments here own that looser feel and opt for something even bigger. “Truth and Love” is a joyous plea for everyone to find their own happiness, and it’s conveyed incredibly well. Even the title track made me want to personally grab a jug of moonshine. “Cloud Valley” as a whole is an exercise in conveying the band’s elements.
Granted, while I applaud the band for making this their most diverse album in terms of vocalists, bassist Travis Books’ commanding voice is the best at conveying any complex emotions. It’s what makes “Planets” such a convincing song with an interesting perspective. In terms of the best written song here though, “If You’re Gonna Love Someone” earns that distinction from its gut-punching hook alone. Thankfully, the band’s layered harmonies are as strong as ever.
That’s not to say there aren’t other good moments. The high-strung, traditional singing and cadence of “Long Time Going” suits the song well, but there’s also problems with over-singing on “Carry Me Away” and “Somewhere In Between.” Beyond the breathy singing of “Thunder,” even the more delicate arrangement feels like it missed the mark by going in that lane given the imagery and content.
And granted, it’s not that any song here is bad, it’s just that several, including the aforementioned ones, feel like they’re missing something in the low-end. The choppy rhythm of “Wake The Dead” in particular kills any momentum it had going for it.
The technical showmanship on display is more than enough to keep Rise Sun from sliding into mediocre territory as a whole though. Between “Planets,” “Truth and Love,” and the high-speed chaos of “Comin’ Again,” the band arguably crafted some of their best songs here. But it’s also an album where the highlights stick out that much more due to a lack of real punch from other tracks. Several tracks bleed into each other, but they feel more like several scattered moments rather than something that keeps the flow even. In terms of the lighter stakes, it’s hard to say the band missed their mark, but it’s also hard to say there couldn’t have been more added to the actual body or stories of these tracks either. If anything, Rise Sun feels like a transitional album into the next chapter for the band, and as long as the technical ability is there, I’m still on board.