(Big Blue Zoo Records, vinyl, CD, digital)
It has never been easy to define exactly what kind of band Greensky Bluegrass is. The five-piece from Kalamazoo, Mich., hit the scene in 2000, playing altered forms of bluegrass and folk music — not entirely surprising, considering that its members met playing open mic nights around the college town.
Over the years, the band has grown and mutated, however. It has picked up members, pulled at its sound and stretched the margins of bluegrass. With each record, Greensky pushed further away from the shores they set out from, adding in bits of progressive rock, country and improvisational moments.
They eventually built themselves into a touring machine, featuring regularly on the jam band scene. Almost 18 years since their debut, Less Than Supper, Greensky continue their long evolution with Stress Dreams, their 11th studio album.
“Absence of Reason” kicks off the record with a true hybrid of a song. The tune chugs along with acoustic guitar and banjo, as Anders Beck’s Dobro guitar slides create ominous swells. Paul Hoffman sings in a plaintive, at times gruff tone, espousing a common theme on Stress Dreams: embracing empathy.
“‘Cause I wanna do right more than anything I do / And I’m burning in my desire to make heat for you / I hope to show a little light that can guide you through,” he sings.
Hoffman became a parent during the last year, and a sense of newfound responsibility and engagement with the world permeates the record. On “Worry for You,” the band looks at the state of the world and, instead of lamenting or satirizing, issues proclamations of unity. Greensky aren’t brushing it all off with a try-to-love-one-another-right-now mentality. Rather, they address some of the systemic problems in society with emotive, cerebral lyrics. “I don’t want to go through the pain / But they say I need to / I just want to break the system that we’ve been chained to,” Hoffman wails on “Cut a Tooth.”
The band is as sonically adventurous as always. The title track, written by bassist Mike Devol, is an eight-minute-plus song that rests on a foundation of guitar and mandolin. The 6/8 groove that ebbs and flows in “Stress Dreams” matches the anxiety in its lyrics.
In many ways, Stress Dreams is a heavy record, full of overarching themes and incredibly adult sorts of hopes and fears. Greensky perhaps recognized that and made sure to sprinkle in some bits of sunshine when sequencing the album. “Give a Shit” and “Reasons to Stay” show a band eager to prove that it hasn’t forgotten the word “bluegrass,” synonymous with levity, is in its name.
Greensky recorded some of the songs on Stress Dreams in Asheville, N.C., but most in Guilford, Vt. It’s fitting that one of the first shows the band performs after releasing the album will be at the Flynn Main Stage in Burlington, on Wednesday, January 26.
Download or order the new Greensky Bluegrass record at greenskybluegrass.com.