- Old Sky, Red Leaves Snowy Peak
(Self-released, digital download)
Old Sky are a folk duo that emerged from the churn of Vermont's busy Americana scene. Singer/guitarist Andrew Stearns handles both songwriting and lead vocals, and he's lucky to have the kind of humble but strong voice this music demands. He's also lucky to have Shay Gestal backing him up on harmonies and fiddle: She is a pure talent at both.
Stearns cut his teeth with Gold Town, a long-running southern Vermont band that specialized in the foot-stompin' school of party bluegrass — they called it "whiskey grass." The band began and ended with the Obama administration, more or less, which gave Stearns ample time to hone his songwriting chops. He met Gestal when she joined Gold Town as a replacement fiddler, and they began creating material on the side.
Time has proven that this was a fortunate move. The pair has since released two EPs of sparse, heartfelt songs. Yet their newest project, Red Leaves Snowy Peak, is another animal altogether.
Last fall, Old Sky released a single, "The Right Mood," which appears here as the second track. The song is a downright startling departure from the stripped-down melancholy of their previous material. They kick off a catchy, bluegrass-flavored hook with a full band, drums and all — and a feel reminiscent of Old Crow Medicine Show.
It was no fluke. Red Leaves Snowy Peak is lushly produced, full of top-notch guest musicians, and represents a serious evolution. The album kicks off with "Gods Country," a showcase for Stearns' storytelling and the high, haunting slide work of pedal steel player Brett Lanier. After "The Right Mood" comes "Closer Than My Troubles," a slower number with a heavy back pocket. It's also an earnest and original love song, something that seems harder to accomplish every passing year.
Deluxe production is the big story here, but that's not to downplay how much Stearns continues to grow as a writer. The man also knows how to pick 'em: He continues his tradition of "local covers" by spotlighting "Low Moan," a banjo blues piece by Vermont duo John Gillette and Sarah Mittlefehldt. It's another reminder that these mountains are packed with talent.
The album has a distinctly vinyl format, with the eight songs here bookended by two instrumental tracks, each an album highlight. Track four is the title cut, a bright little number featuring fast chops and careful dynamics. And album closer "Holding Onto Summer" damn near steals the show.
Without question, Red Leaves Snowy Peak stands as Old Sky's best work to date. And that's saying something. The band already had a stellar catalog, but its music had never been so fully realized. Stearns and Gestal's gift for arrangements are equal to their gift for pure songwriting, and it's all framed just about perfectly askew.
Old Sky perform on Sunday, May 12, as part of the Bluegrass Brunch series at the Skinny Pancake on the Burlington waterfront. Red Leaves Snowy Peak is available at oldskyvt.bandcamp.com.