On his newest album with his newest band, Ben Sollee is nothing if not efficient. In the space of the two scant minutes it takes for “Carrie Bell” to run its course, the Louisville/Lexington cello chieftain offers a revision of bluegrass design that sounds both beautifully traditional and deeply progressive. Aside from a chamber-like compositional sense, an antique folk feel and a deft percussive percussion drive that is effortlessly African at heart, the tune moves with all the confidence of bluegrass and pre-bluegrass country at about half the speed. What that yields is music that is exact, playful, patient and spacious. For the duration of the 13 songs that make up “Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native,” that inviting mix does not abate.
The initial impression the album establishes with its cello, percussion, fiddle and banjo makeup isn’t traditional string music, obviously, but rather a sound that takes its cue from the generation-removed new grass sounds artists like Edgar Meyer, (past Sollee collaborator) Bela Fleck and Mark O’Connor began to pioneer and popularize at the dawn of the 1980s. All three are channeled with eerie detail on the instrumental “Emily’s Song,” which glides along with exchanges between Sollee, banjo player Bennett Sullivan and fiddler Julian Pinelli in a way that recalls the exquisite music Meyer and O’Connor created on their genre-busting 1996 “Appalachian Waltz” album. The luscious sparseness of Sullivan’s playing, on the other hand, is remarkably reminiscent of Fleck’s spotless tone.
The Kentucky connections dig far deeper than the attractive soundscapes drawing you in, though. With Lexington artist Louis Zoellar Bickett as its core inspiration, “Pieces of You” is a lightly constructed but deeply emotive portrait of trash-as-treasure beauty, a chronicle of how seemingly discarded refuse is transformed once its sentimental value is revealed. “Some people just see a pile of junk,” Sollee sings amid a string backup of sunny solace. “They don’t know that it’s pieces of you.”
By contrast, “Well Worn Man” places the string and percussion into a tighter, more pensive grip reminiscent of Paul Simon’s more recent music. But its clipped groove quickly eases into a more plaintive, almost elegiac coda that drifts away like a car passed along a stretch of two-lane highway. Then, for a pleasantly abrupt diversion, “Mechanical Advantage” dresses a tale of tattooed infatuation with summery Mexican accents and a fiddle break from Pinelli that undercuts the tango-like construction with long, windswept string runs.
What all this translates into on “Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native” is music both familiar and new, performed with sound of deceptive string simplicity. But within these songs sits the kind of keen, progressive instrumental interplay one only hopes Sollee will mine for years to come.