Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – Ring The Bell
Iron & Diamonds was one of 2008′s best bluegrass albums, charting in the Top 5 on several year-end lists. Barely a year later, upstate New Yorkers Eric and Leigh Gibson are back with Ring the Bell. Combining the high lonesome sounds of Bill and Charlie Monroe with the sweet harmonies of Phil and Don Everly, the Gibson Brothers are the best brother duo to hit bluegrass music in years–maybe decades.
The past year has seen an important personnel change hit the Brothers and their supporting musicians. Mandolinist and longtime band member Rick Hayes retired from the road in order to begin a new career as a luthier; if he makes mandolins half as good as he picks ‘em, whoever ends up possessing a Hayes original is a lucky bluegrasser indeed. Hayes’ spot has been filled by Joe Walsh, an able replacement who fits right in with the rest of the group (Clayton Campbell on fiddle, Mike Barber on bass). It seems as though Walsh fit neatly into the band dynamics, even co-writing a song with Eric, Leigh, and the man whose position he filled.
Iron & Diamonds was such a great record that nearly any attempts to top it would fall short. Here the Gibsons choose to get a little more ruggedly progressive with their traditional bluegrass sound: Mike Witcher lays down some dirty dobro on “I Can’t Like Myself,” and there’s even some percussion on one track courtesy of Erick Jaskowiak. For the most part this change in the group’s sound is successful, though the hardcore bluegrass tracks of the album such as “Jericho” are by far the strongest cuts.
And although they’re expanding their musical boundaries, Eric and younger brother Leigh, who wrote or co-wrote six of the album’s 12 tracks, still stick tight to their typical subject matter: family, faith, and farming.
The Brothers’ Adirondacks upbringing figures prominently on this album, with both contributing a song about rural life. Eric bemoans the death of family farms on “Farm of Yesterday,” singing “They build ‘em bigger now/They got more land they got more cows/Maybe they have found a better way, it’s hard to say/But I miss that old farm of yesterday.” Leigh closes out the album with “Bottomland,” a song about a young man who escapes his family’s sharecropping life and finds wealth and success. But as anyone who has listened to a handful of country songs in his or her life knows, wealth is empty if there’s no family to love you or no home to go to.
In addition to being top-notch songwriters, the Brothers are pretty good song choosers as well. Eric and Leigh again cover Tom Petty (on Iron & Diamonds they gave “Cabin Down Below” a pretty rocking bluegrass treatment); here it’s “Angel Dream” that’s transformed into a midtempo mountain gospel tune. Joe Newberry lends two songs to Ring the Bell; the first one, opening track “I Know Whose Tears,” is inspired by a Rudyard Kipling poem, but lyrics such as “Mother, my first companion/Mother, my truest friend/Mother, way up in heaven/We’ll meet again” sure make the subcontinent poet sound like an Appalachian songwriter.
Ring the Bell is the Gibson’s first record with their new label, Compass Records. While it may not be as immediately successful as their previous albums with Rounder, Ring the Bell signals a new age for Eric and Leigh Gibson. Their songwriting has matured and their already superb picking is in fine form here. Whether they stick with this slightly rawer sound or choose to return to their polished bluegrass past, one thing is for sure: when it comes to the Gibson Brothers, you just can’t go wrong.
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