Banjo Player’s Blues (LP) by High Fidelity
In their second studio album, bluegrass/Americana outfit High Fidelity continue to explore pastoral poetry with a humble approach to harmonies that yields surprisingly strong results here, with songs like “Tears of Regret (ft. Jesse McReynolds),” “The Picture on the Wall,” “The South Bound Train” and “Helen” standing out as some of my personal favorites of the bunch. Without skipping a beat, this band picks up right where they left off in their 2018 debut while alluding to an instrumental wit that was only teased in their greenhorn work. This feels like a turning point, and it would appear I’m the only critic who holds it in high regard.
While there isn’t a lot of pizazz in the imagery that comprises the music video for “Tears of Regret,” simply uniting Jesse McReynolds with High Fidelity on camera makes for quite the interesting scene in my opinion. The physicality of the music they make is the subject and the spotlight of the piece, and while that’s becoming a little less common in country and folk music on the mainstream side of things, it’s an integral attribute that separates good Americana from the merely standard-class content I often hear out of the mainstream and underground the same.
The strings are always a dominant force in this record, and in songs like “You Made the Break,” “Turkey in the Straw” and the title cut, they speak to emotions that words have never been as refined at expressing on their own. There’s a lot of love for the basic rules of roots music in the way High Fidelity structure their music, and despite the narrative on throwbacks, I think this is an instance in which the term could be applied to a band’s sound lovingly – after all, there aren’t many groups who can marry the surface appeal of the contemporary with the sterling conceptualism of the old guard quite as well as these players can.
“Helen,” “Dear God,” “Tears of Regret” and “Take My Ring from Your Finger” are compositionally as diverse a foursome as I can imagine within the context of a modern bluegrass record, but they don’t make for strange pillars of a singular tracklist at all; on the contrary, they have a lot in common aesthetically if you give them a close enough listen. Everything here is born of a bucolic balladry that can move fast (“Feudin’ Banjos,” “Got a Little Light”) as well as slow (“His Charming Love”), with versatility serving as the main point of cohesion.
I had heard a lot of great things about High Fidelity ahead of reviewing their latest release in Banjo Player’s Blues, and though I don’t typically agree with hype, this is an occasion on which the material really does justify the buzz around it. Banjo Player’s Blues is a fun, easy-listening bluegrass record that has the style of an aficionado’s secret stash without the pretentiousness of the enthusiast elite coming between artist and audience, and in some ways that makes it one of the more superior follow-up albums of its strain to debut in 2020.