To a majority of people, bluegrass music is going to be associated with the American South and Appalachian regions where the genre developed and flourished. Somewhere further down the list of places you might expect to hear a bluegrass band hailing from is Sweden, but that’s exactly where Downhill Bluegrass Band comes from. Having been around since the late ‘90s, the group, led by singer and mandolinist Jonas Kjellgren, has toured extensively around Europe and released three albums. Their fourth, A Grasshopper’s Lament, bristles with energy, talent, and exceptional songwriting. What’s more is how staggeringly well the band plays together, resulting in a consistently stellar album that comes together as more than the sum of its parts.
The band’s line-up consists of the aforementioned Jonas Kjellgren, Kenneth Kjellgren on banjo, Magnus Sundstrom and/or Mikael Grund on guitar, Nicke Widen playing dobro, fiddle-player Ivor Ottley, and bassist Kajsa Westin. In all fairness, no one musician outshines another across the album. Everyone in the band feeds into the group sound and the synergistic effect it creates is always complimentary to the emotion of the song. Even when one of the pieces doesn’t have a strikingly memorable hook or isn’t entirely catchy, the lively performances make every one of the thirteen songs enjoyable.
“Give it Up and Give In” leads the album off with the kind of sound that is very identifiable with the genre. Quick paced banjo picking meets the gentle whine of the dobro to create a bouncy energy and a slight bluesy tone. This matches the lyric well as Jonas sing, “Now when the fire comes down, they’ll be no one around to show you the way…” His voice and delivery is very notable as well for its unique qualities. If Roland Gift of the Fine Young Cannibals decided to go country with a bit of a lower pitch and tone, you’d have a reasonable approximation of Jonas’s voice. He makes his songs compelling and delivers his lyrics just as well as he wrote them.
“Silver and Gold” demonstrates the band’s ability to create a unique arrangement in order to emphasize the emotional weight of a song. Though it starts off with forceful rhythm guitar and vocals, the instrumental bridge is played in a gentle manner by the band, allowing the fiddle to take advantage of this and deliver a strongly emotional solo. Throughout the piece are sustained backing vocals that also add to the song’s emotional weight.
The title track’s straight-up instrumental does a good deal to showcase the individual member’s talents as strong dobro, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle parts drive the song along its three minute journey. The performances are so strong that the song just breezes right by in its jubilant manner. “Count Me In” is another piece that flies right by on the strength of its fiddle, backing vocals and the way the higher timbre of the mandolin pokes its way through the arrangement to remind you of how much it adds to the music.
Though it’s difficult to call one song better than any of the others, since they are all so strongly consistent, “That Idiot Wind” is a contender for the best song here on the album. With an intensely catchy chorus, delivered brilliantly by Jonas, and just the right amount of harmony from the rest of the group, the brilliant hook stands out amongst the many others. “Crawl Back” is also a contender for the best song on the album given its darker tone and story about a woman who you really don’t want to get involved with; because she may be in league with the Devil.
Downhill Bluegrass Band has put together an exceptionally strong album of amazingly well-performed original bluegrass songs. Each track is the perfect length and showcases a cohesive band playing to their full potential. It’d be hard to improve on material this strong, so the only potential problem with A Grasshopper’s Lament is in how high the bar has been set for future releases.
Review by: Heath Andrews
Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)