Broken Lines is Hard Drivin’ Bluegrass

It’s not very difficult to become a fan of the Rubber Knife Gang.  There are a lot of string bands around town whose styles range from the most traditional to more modern versions of folk themes.  I love bands made up of musicians who have really delved into their roots and found their voices in a different time.  I think the Rubber Knife Gang is one of those throwback bands, but I don’t mean these guys should have lived during the Bill Monroe era or their lyrics sound like they were written 100 years ago.   It’s more like somebody took away Curt Cobain’s electric instruments, so he decided to make a string band… and let Dave Grohl play banjo.  On any RKG album you can hear bluegrass songs with authentic folky roots and serious chops on the strings, balanced with songs that seem to have nothing else in common with bluegrass other than the instruments themselves… and serious chops on strings.  The band members have all explored electric music and pull from other eras and genres to sound the way they individually like, so the full band sound can take the shape of blues, alt-rock, or hints of grunge.  I took the first chance I had to hear Broken Lines (2015) because I’d been hearing solo and duo versions of many of the songs at open mics and showcases when Hank Becker and Todd “Willy” Wilson have a chance to get out and play them.  These days there haven’t been many chances to see the band live as one of the band members now lives out of the country, but the band has enough chemistry, familiarity, and savvy with their resources to continue creating great music for their listeners.  It is a rare treat to see them live, so when you see them on your calendar just go ahead and circle it.  The official release date for the album is April 22nd, but copies will be available as the band gets together to play at the Taste of the Whispering Beard at the Southgate House Revival – Sanctuary this Saturday, April 18th.    

The Rubber Knife Gang has enjoyed enduring success as a band, and distance between the band members will not stop them from continuing to send good music out to their fans.   Drivin’ On (2010) has ended up reaching a much wider audience than just local hard-copy sales of the album, so much so that the band often gets contacted by fans from around the country and overseas to play in their cities and towns and to keep putting out good music.  There was even the recent discovery that guitar players out there are arranging tablature and posting their arrangements to help others learn how to play along.  The band took all of the strong and steady encouragement to heart, and nice guys as they are, couldn’t let good music appreciating fans down.  They began working on an update, but had new circumstances to manage in order to do so.  Bassist John Oaks had moved overseas in 2013, so the band is not the typical local touring band with regular rehearsals.  Developing new material was going to take more modern methods than playing the songs together repeatedly to help feel the arrangements out.  Songs were going to have to be developed by recording parts separately and then piecing it all together.  Oaks had recorded some demos with Wilson before moving, and found new equipment to practice and record his parts on songs Wilson and Becker started recording back home.  The band would listen to individual tracks using files shared online, then discuss their input through conference calls and email as they decided what to keep and what to change or cut.  Two of the 12 songs on the album were already a part of the band’s live set;  four of them were written collaboratively between Becker an Wilson and recorded for Oaks to review, and the rest were individually written by band members for the others to create parts for. 

With so much separation between contributing musicians it would make sense for the songs to feel like something is out of place.  If I hadn’t known any of the backstory I would never have guessed that these weren’t songs worked up and honed the old-fashioned way.  Some of the songs were recorded during a session in the winter of 2014 when Oaks was in town, but the initial recordings were to give everyone a reference point to practice on.  In some cases the rough track became the version to go on the album.  In other cases, parts of the songs were stitched together using parts that once fit and then worked their way out of fitting as the song evolved.  Patience and evolution periodically called for new tracks as the songs came together, and because the band works so well together they were able to adapt until they had what they needed.  A valuable contributor to making the whole thing work was Rob Fugate at Mind Ignition Studios, who set up and recorded the studio tracks and then completed all of the mixing and mastering of the final product.  The band has always utilized Fugate’s skills for their albums, and with the uniqueness of having separate tracks recorded from different locations it was important to have an ear they could trust as they put it together.   Since Fugate had been with the band through other albums and throughout the planning and recording of this one, he was able to dial in a sound that integrates and balances every part. 

Like the Rubber Knife Gang’s first two albums, A Rubber Knife Life (2008) and Drivin’ On (2010), Broken Lines shifts gears throughout the album as different songwriters take their turn out in front of the songs.  It feels like about half of the songs have a sound consistent with RKG’s first two albums, but even those have RKG’s trademark twists to them.  The album opens up with staccato notes picked and slightly bent on “Bringing Rain” – I wrote down that it sounded like a steel dobro, but it turns out it’s a ukulele.  Wait… a what?  Don’t worry, listeners.  They crush it.   Songs like “Siren Serenade” return the band to a more classic sound almost like a fiddle tune, with a bouncy rhythm and lyrics warning of dangerous love while Todd Wilson picks out the leads on mandolin.  “Draw the Line”, “Broken Lines”, and “Take the Fall” start to push the band outside of typical bluegrass boundaries, and the banjo attack on “Take the Fall” shows how much Hank Becker has been spending in the practice room.  As the album continues on the songs continue to get more adventurous in their expression.  John Oaks’ “Damn You December” is lyrically and tonally beautiful and completely unexpected after the first five songs.  After hitting repeat a couple of times, I let the next track start.  When I heard a sitar on “House on Fire” I sent Hank Becker a message wondering what I was listening to.  Hank reminded me that it was a banjo, and I reminded him that he is a freak.  Nobody is supposed to play a banjo like that.  The songs get more creative as the album goes on, with “Gone Away” starting off like a bluegrass tune before adding backing vocals through a grit mic and then wandering off on an instrumental break for a while.  “Birds in Flight” is that classic RKG song that bounces along with expert instrumentation and well-rounded harmonies, but before you think they’re done with playing songs from outside the proverbial box, we get two more unique goodies.  “Straight & Narrow Line” gives us a whole different style of song and… is that the ukulele again?  Willy’s pretty good on that thing.  The uke returns on “Someone Who Cares”, and John Oaks has his chance to stand out as well with long bass notes played with a bow.  This song is the other sweet surprise to me on this album.  I get lulled into thinking this is a bluegrass band, and then I think I am listening to a rock band on acoustic instruments, but I am always reminded that I am listening to songwriters.   The themes of bluegrass lyrics aren’t much different than blues or angsty grunge – sometimes you’re in love and happy about it, sometimes not so much and bad things happen.  If done well, the delivery should be timeless, and I do believe these guys got that right no matter what route they chose to tell each story.

A good album should feel like a journey.  You know you have listened to an entire album a lot when a song on the radio ends and you automatically remember what song is supposed to start next.  With Broken Lines, the proper song to sum up the list is “Hard Driving Rain” for a few reasons.   First, it’s a killer song.  Underneath the face value of the song is that it is the rough demo recorded in Todd Wilson’s living room.  Rob Fugate added the thunderstorm track to the song and, without any additional editing, found that the thunderclaps fell in places that worked just right for the song.  As Fugate gathered the bass track from John Oaks, set the tracks where they should be and put the pieces of the song in place, it’s like it was always meant to be that way.  Such is the entire experience of Broken Lines.   Get on down to The Southgate House Revival Sanctuary this weekend for the Taste of the Whispering Beard and the Rubber Knife Gang’s newest release.  You will certainly not be disappointed with either.