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Kathy Kallick Band Kathy Kallick Band
Album: Horrible World
Label: Live Oak
Tracks: 13

Bay Area bluegrass specialists The Kathy Kallick Band deliver a distinctive package, a refreshing and dynamic blend of traditional and contemporary bluegrass sensibilities. The outfit has already released four albums during its career, and these sit comfortably on the shelves alongside the solo records of leader Kathy and her earlier ventures with Good Ol' Persons and in partnership with Laurie Lewis. The pedigree's sure impressive, and the bar is already set high, so expectations naturally run high too for any new product from Kathy's stable.

I'm pleased to report, then, that Horrible World, Kathy's latest release with her trusty band, doesn't disappoint in any regard. In the three years since the release of its predecessor Foxhounds, Kathy and her crack team of musicians have consolidated their well-respected position in the wider bluegrass scene, and Kathy's been busy writing new songs in response to the events that have been unfolding in the "horrible world" we live in. Of course, her sentiments are discomfortingly familiar, as is the tenor of her expressive voice of protest, but let's face it, there'll always be something to protest about and these issues will never go away. And it's all too easy to be defeatist, so we should welcome Kathy's views, ideas and solutions (and her surprisingly cheery good-humour) and embrace the spirit of hope in which her songs are written.

The sound of Kathy's music, too, is far from "horrible" - it's most pleasing to the ear, and empowering and uplifting in the best tradition of bluegrass. Kathy contributes six new songs to the mix, all of which manage to pierce the gloom of this "horrible world" and just make you feel good. They range from the necessarily cutting right-minded commentary of the title song to the tenderly, lovingly nostalgic The Sunday Road, the sanguine seasonal reflection Pockets Full Of Rain and the rollicking story-song Ride Away. The album ends on a comforting note with This Beautiful World, a simple and open-hearted expression of faith that Kathy co-wrote with John Reischman.

The band's cover of Bill Monroe's Dark As The Night is peerless - absolutely and ideal in tempo and feel - while it's good to hear a less-often-covered Carter Family song (My Honey Lou) for a change, especially when, as here, it's dispatched with such natural authenticity and assured brio. Kathy and her band also turn in an exceptional, and unusually spacious, extended reinvention of Cotton Eyed Joe that after a thoughtful rendition of the song itself suddenly ramps up the gear-change midway for a splendidly fiery, right-side-of-showy fiddle solo from the eternally youthful Annie Staninec before the high-octane reprise of the song itself. This kind of enterprise is just one example of why this band scores so high.

In addition to the original songs and covers, the album contains three contrasted instrumental cuts. The sparkling uptempo Edale, penned by the band's mandolinist Tom Bekeny, was inspired by playing at the 1986 Bluegrass Festival at that Derbyshire village; then there's the wonderfully relaxed dobro-swing outing of Herb Remington's Boot Heel Drag (penned for Bob Wills) featuring the superlative picking of Greg Booth, while I particularly enjoyed the gleefully cool Mike Elder composition Cascade Blues, whose delectable melodic twists and turns prompted a swift repeat play or two! Throughout the set tho, the sense of ensemble is enviably strong, the musicianship brilliant without needing to grandstand or resort to easy clich├ęs or moves to prove its point. On the vocal numbers too tho', each band member gets the chance to shine with solos and fills, and the support work is just perfect too, everything in its rightful place and a constant delight to the ears and feet and mind.

So hey now, don't you be wrongfooted by the album's title, for this is a delicious disc, not in the least depressing - and very probably one of the most enjoyable bluegrass albums I've heard all year. Oh, and it's housed in a beautifully configured digipack into which is fixed the informative, richly illustrated lyric-filled booklet, so full marks for presentation too.

David Kidman