Album Review: The McKrells “Still Pickin'”
SARATOGA SPRINGS – With their latest release, Still Pickin’, The McKrells continue to show just how much moxie they contain. Featuring a menagerie of talent that mainly sticks within the confines of bluegrass, each song is packed with a keen sense of songwriting know-how and virtuosity that’s hard to debate. Though the timbre of Kevin McKrell’s voice clearly demonstrates a long and storied history, it is more commanding than ever, proving the songwriter still has lots to offer, and lots to say.
The album begins with “Sunshine,” a song that features a nice a cappella intro. With great banjo underpinnings, alongside a brilliantly performed fiddle, the song quickly serves to outline an album rich in classic bluegrass tones. The vocal is extremely well-defined and out in front of the mix, and the harmonies are a nice touch, but it’d be a great song without them. The song hints at the standard tune, “You Are My Sunshine,” throughout entire the piece, and finally goes full-bore into that reference as a way of ending the track.
Speaking of banjo, “Always,” the second track, has an extremely rollicking banjo intro, supported by guitar, bass, and percussion. Once again, the vocals sit nicely within the context of the tune, seemingly floating throughout the entire piece. The guitar interlude is fantastic, soon followed by some great finesse on the fiddle (an alliteration that I assure you was but a happy accident on this listener’s part). The interplay between the soloing instruments is just fantastic.
The band shows its ability to change pace within the album on the following track. “Big Old Broken Heart” begins with a gentle fiddle intro, and overall the track is slightly slower than the last two tunes. The fiddle seems to fill in more of the song’s “pockets” or spaces, but after the first chorus, we are greeted by nice interplay between guitar and mandolin. This is a welcome switch-up of soloing instrumentation, and yet another nice arrangement touch exists after the second chorus: the fiddle and guitar solo this time, rather than mandolin. Then, one quick spoken word verse happens before the final chorus appears, thus ending the song.
While the majority of this record remains within the bluegrass genre, there are some instances where the flow of the music drifts ever-so-slightly into singer-songwriter territory. This is especially the case for “You And Me,” and “A Song And A Prayer,” tracks four and seven, respectively. The latter tune, in this listener’s ears, really shines forward. Throughout the piece, the arrangement seems to continually build. The song has a definite Celtic style that helps outline the meandering – but never too much so – waltz. After the first stanza, the fiddle joins in, and by the third stanza, harmonies join in. The continual buildup of the song’s arrangement is a very nice touch. Halfway through, the fiddle and guitar solo over the song’s chord progression before the vocal comes back in, this time without harmony. After the harmonies come back in for final stanza, the song ends by repeating the last line, commonly referred to as the “tag.”
There are some real unexpected auditory nuggets in this album. For example, consider the song, “A Boat Named Love and Happiness,” track five. The main rhythm in the beginning is a slow version of the classic “Bo Diddley Rhythm,” which was greatly unexpected to this listener. The chromatic flavor of the solos in this song are extremely enjoyable, and what’s more is that the tune has a vague island-vibe to it, as well. Perhaps even more unexpected was the bass solo: such a nice addition to this song, and different than the rest of the album. Though this song arguably brought the energy level of the record down, the McKrells wasted no time staying there with the following track, “An Angel In The Moonlight,” a blazing bluegrass number.
The next two tracks, “The Valentine Card,” and “On That Northbound Train,” tracks eight and nine, respectively, feature a slight shift towards more of a banjo presence than on previous tunes within the record. The train rhythm on the latter tune really drives this piece home, along with deftly played fiddle and guitar solos that filled out the sections following the choruses.
For the last track, “It’s A Simple Thing,” all of the verses are spoken word. The brief pauses here and there really add weight to a song already rich in deep lyrical content, and in the ears of this listener, it serves as the perfect closing song: a tender love lyric cast upon a compelling instrumental foundation.
Throughout Still Pickin’, the strong tenor of Kevin McKrell remains triumphant. With the instrumentation staying solid from start-to-finish, provided by Peter Pashoukos on guitar, Arlin Greene on bass, Frank Orsini on fiddle, Scott Hopkins on banjo, and Brian Melick on percussion, the entire record is a pleasure to hear. Fans of bluegrass are sure to quickly fall in love with this one!