(Self-released, CD, digital download)
What makes bluegrass tick? That is never an easy question to answer with music in general. And it’s more challenging with a curious bluegrass band such as Tumbling Bones than it would be with, say, your average blues outfit. Seeing as these three are descended from Philly-based indie rockers the Powder Kegs, you’d expect their foray into American roots music to be interesting. After all, the Kegs began life as a bluegrass collective that evolved into an indie band by aiming to meld the strange with the saccharine using a deft, modern approach. However, on their debut EP, Risk Not Your Soul, Tumbling Bones go back to their roots. Way back.
On this collection of six age-old standards, the band digs into the roots of Americana itself. Tumbling Bones claim to search for the grit that lies at the genre’s core. Then they strip away everything else and drag it back to the present.
The EP opens with a barnstormer, “Banks of Jordan.” The song hits like a giant slab of raw meat to the face — so raw it seems alive and breathing. But its visceral stomp holds up to repeated plays. Here, vocalists Peter Winne and Jake Hoffman — also on guitar and banjo duties, respectively — show off harmonic chops and slash away at their strings. They slice and dice this African American spiritual, leaving any signs of subtlety or picking virtuosity by the wayside.
The down-and-dirty approach is spread a little thin over the next five tracks. However, Tumbling Bones cling to that aforementioned grit when things simmer down. On “East VA Blues,” Winne digs deep into the ballad’s guitar part to prevent it from just floating along. “St. Louis Blues” has a slow, hazy strut with some hot-summer-afternoon banjo and fiddle licks.
Instrumentals “Sally Johnson” and “Salt River” are strange beguilers, allowing Sam McDougle ample time on the fiddle. Though upbeat, they don’t quite hit like “Banks of Jordan.” With repeated listens, though, the tunes sink in and feel less like stylized fiddle workouts than honest explorations of seminal bluegrass. It doesn’t take a musicologist to know that this is simplistic stuff for the genre, but it’s supposed to be. Tumbling Bones make sense of the music in an embryonic kind of way.
If the band hasn’t yet found that beating heart of early bluegrass and roots music, it’s close. Tumbling Bones’ approach is enticing, and Risk Not Your Soul succeeds the way many debut EPs do: It doesn’t always sound great, but it feels pretty damn good.
Tumbling Bones play Nectar’s this Tuesday, June 28, opening for 14 West.