I had the great fortune of being able to catch Old Salt Union open for Son Volt back in June, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on their new Compass Records release, Where The Dogs Don’t Bite, which releases on August 16th. The band has one hand firmly grasped on new, or modern-grass, while also holding on dearly to the traditional feel of those that paved the way. It’s a good mix, an eclectic mix, and one that definitely works. As they did on their previous self-titled release, the band returned to the successful formula that worked so well by utilizing the talents of Allison Brown (also Compass Records co-founder) to produce the rich and warm album we have here today.
“God You Don’t Need” kicks things off with a nice rolling guitar intro that serves as a fine introduction to newest member Graham Curry. Promptly joined by John Brighton’s haunting violin, Ryan Murphey’s banjo, Justin Wallace’s mandolin and finally, Jesse Farrar’s upright bass. Farrar’s vocals take on a woeful twinge as he tells a familiar tale of a relationship gone sour. Through it all, the band takes a classically styled musical approach bred with a manic bluegrass enthusiasm that seems tempered by a restraint that seems barely contained. That seems to be the theme throughout Where The Dogs Don’t Bite, and it’s a really compelling dynamic.
Having seen these guys play live, I’m familiar with their energy level. I speculate that they find the more restrained nature of a recording studio to be a bit too inhibiting overall. Yet, somehow, Brown and the boys take that pent up energy and transform it into an assured and equally daring release.
Throughout, it’s this assertive confidence that is one of the most significant strengths of the album. It’s the strong vocal harmonies that only bolster and help showcase the masterful instrumentation. The subdued tracks ( “Big Dreams Small Talk”, “Hurt Somebody”, and the title track ), as well as the rollicking “Heartbroke and Lonesome” and “Tell Me So” (which also features the incomparable vocals of Compass label-mate, Bobby Osborne). Despite the strong harmonies, it’s the music and stunning arrangements the band put together that really display the magic of Old Salt Union here. That wondrous blend of Appalachia, gypsy jazz, blues and ballads is perfectly portrayed in the instrumental “Johann’s Breakdown” and within the rolls of “Ebb and Flow”.
The album runs through its ten wonderful songs in a balanced fashion, with the majority of the song’s vocals equally split between Farrar and Wallace. Curry rounds things out taking an impressive lead vocal on “Heartbroke and Lonesome.” Clocking in at only 36 minutes long, provides my only disappointment. “Where The Dogs Don’t Bite” concludes leaving the listener wanting more. I really enjoyed “Where The Dogs Don’t Bite”, probably even more than I expected too. My personal highlights were, “Hearbroke and Lonesome,” “God You Don’t Need,” “Hurt Somebody” and “Tell Me So.” Take a sliver of the traditionalism of Old Crow Medicine Show, blend in a healthy blended dose of the modern ingenuity of Bela and the Flecktones and Kronos Quartet, and top it off with the vocal harmonies of Mandolin Orange and you have a good idea of Old Salt Union. Their youthful energy and innovation does bluegrass good. The band has several pre-order options available via their website as well as Compass Records.