CD review: Cadillac Sky's 'Letters in the Deep'

Friday, July 30, 2010


"Letters in the Deep"

Kindred spirits: Wilco, Old Crow Medicine Show, Danny Barnes, Laura Veirs

Show: Saturday at Tarara Winery. Show starts at 6 p.m. 703-771-7100. $15.

The classic Appalachian string-band format (banjo, mandolin, fiddle, acoustic bass, acoustic guitar and/or dobro) is usually associated with bluegrass and old-time country, but it can do a lot more. It has been used in jazz, rockabilly and modern country and more recently by such groups as Punch Brothers, King Wilkie and Cadillac Sky for the surprising purpose of making art-rock. And Cadillac Sky's new album, "Letters in the Deep," is the greatest achievement yet of this unlikely trend.

Cadillac Sky, whose 2006 debut was a traditional bluegrass album released on Ricky Skaggs's label, recorded this third disc with producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Like such art-rock producers as George Martin and Brian Wilson, Auerbach encouraged the group to push the sonic boundaries of their instruments to enhance the pushed-to-the-edge mood of such songs as "Human Cannonball," "Hangman" and "Trapped Under the Ice."

The results never sound arch, cluttered or labored, because no matter how far Ross Holmes's fiddle, Bryan Simpson's mandolin or Matt Menefee's banjo stretch the harmony, their parts always seem to spring from the inspiration of the moment. The verses on "Break My Heart Again" and "Hypocrite" may sound ominously strange, but the choruses boast such catchy melodies that the contrast makes both sections that much stronger.

-- Geoffrey Himes

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