Like an aged, fine wine, Life is Good on the Open Road, the new album from Trampled by Turtles, is mature, sumptuous and full-bodied. Coming on the heels of a year-long hiatus, the Duluth, Minnesota sextet has produced an album that shares the best qualities of 2014’s Wild Animals while breaking new ground. While Life is Good features tracks with a range of tempos, the Turtles’ decision here, as on Wild Animals, to include a number of songs slowed down from the frenetic pace of their earlier albums really makes the lyrics and melodies more prominent.
The Turtles made the right decision to give more prominence to the lyrics on Life is Good. Dave Simonett has written songs that are poetic and literary but at the same time tight and sharp. If someone asked me to a play quintessentially Americana, I might very well play “Thank You, John Steinbeck” from this record. The song reflects on lost love, surveys the American landscape, and looks forward to future travels, with reference to a giant of the American literary cannon, to the instrumental backing of a traditional string band.
I can’t say enough good things about the musicianship on Life is Good. Dave Simonett (guitar, harmonica), Tim Saxhaugh (bass), Dave Carroll (banjo), Erik Berry (mandolin), and Ryan Young (fiddle) are, quite simply, some of the most talented string players today. As I listen to Life is Good, I can hear each instrument distinctly, even as they play harmony. None of the sound gets lost in the shuffle.
The Turtles are also exceptional for their ability to play at different tempos. The songs on Life is Good range in pace from the slow, ballad-like tempo of “Thank You, John Steinbeck” to the mid-paced “Annihilate” to the hard-driving “Kelly’s Bar.” The Turtles’ music will come as a surprise to people who think of bluegrass only as fast music, hootin’ and hollerin’ music made for square dancing – there’s a lot more to bluegrass. Life is Good on the Open Road is a great way to introduce new listeners to the genre, and a delight for existing listeners.