There aren't a lot of places where two brothers from Virginia can feel at home playing traditional bluegrass. Vermont is one such locale, and Joe and John Cleary have comfortably settled into the Green Mountains' old-time scene.
Greasefire is the first Cleary Bros. release since 2002's Who's Been Here Since I've Been Gone.The new effort contains a good mix of barnburners and fireside tales of woe.
Recorded live into a single microphone at Joe Cleary's mandolin workshop, the album sounds crisp despite such Depression-era engineering.
Cleary's traditional songwriting style comes off naturally, both lyrically and instrumentally. In fact, you might think the opening cut was written a hundred years ago. That is, if the lyrics didn't reference a 2003 Idaho potato processing plant fire.
"Black and Bay" puts the spotlight on the brothers' instinctive harmony meshes. The vocals sound great on this droning, spooky lullaby. Unfortunately, they tend to get buried on subsequent tracks that feature denser instrumentation. This might be the sole drawback to the band's antiquated recording method. For example, "Jesus" is the only word I could make out in "When Sorrows Encompass Me Round."
The fiddle interplay between Joe Cleary and Caleb Elder is remarkable, however. The instrumental tracks zero in on synched melody lines, with soloing left for live venues.
Focusing on the tunes allows the band to seamlessly weave between originals and covers. None shines more brightly than Joe Cleary's own "Lead and Gold" - a haunting piece of modern Americana that conjures visions of overmined mountains.
The cover highlight of the record is "Ain't a Bit Drunk," a classic mountain-boy number by George Roark originally issued by Columbia Records in 1929.
The brothers sing out with a lot of heart on Greasefire, but not always with the strength the tunes deserve. Overdubbing the vocals might have helped, without sacrificing the album's authenticity. The CD is impressive, but with a little extra effort could have been even more so. Catch the release party on Friday, October 6, at Club Metronome.