The two particulars separating “Rehab Reunion” from most every other record made by Bruce Hornsby is the unexpected absence of one sound and the dominance of another.
What you don’t hear is piano, not one note. That’s quite a shift for a stylist like Hornsby, who has developed not just a virtuosic voice for the instrument within his pop lexicon but an exact and animated compositional sense for where it makes the most vibrant emotional statement. What takes its place? The dulcimer. Seriously, the dulcimer, the stringed agent of rural folk music, an instrument that would seem to be light years away from the wistful and wondrous arrangements Hornsby has long employed as musical playgrounds.
But the most stunning aspect to the highly listenable “Rehab Reunion” is that you really don’t sense a change of stylistic course for Hornsby and his long-running band The Noisemakers, bolstered here by fine guest shots from Justin Vernon and Mavis Staples. Sure, the dulcimer rides along the record’s nine songs primarily as a rhythmic device. But if you suspect there is some gaping void left by the absence of piano, think again. Hornsby’s songs are just as complete in their sense of orchestral and emotive beauty. Some of that comes from co-hort J.T. Thomas on organ, whose runs beautifully flesh out these tunes. His playing especially underscores the sunny wanderlust of “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.” with a cool ingenuity that recalls The Band’s Garth Hudson. Hearing him alongside the string serenades of Hornsby and mandolinist Ross Holmes is a genuine delight as is the song’s playful Floridian storyline of being fatherly knighted as “Don Juan Schula.”
Hornsby’s lineage to the Grateful Dead isn’t ignored, either. Throughout “Rehab Reunion,” the bright, clipped guitar sound of Gibb Droll accents the songs with an air that can’t help but recall the floating melodic drive of Jerry Garcia.
Most of all, though, is how steadfast Hornsby’s pop command remains. He is a clever wordsmith throughout the album, be it through the character studies within the title song to “Rehab Reunion” (the most thematically intriguing tune of its kind since Warren Zevon’s “Detox Mansion”) or the out-of-nowhere odes to the art of restaurant gratuity (“Tipping”) and a certain European writer not normally celebrated within pop circles (“Hey Kafka”). But it’s the music that grabs you most — a wide open sound that references jazz and folk as much as its does pop and jam band intent.
This isn’t the first time Hornsby has taken to the dulcimer on a record. It began popping up sparingly nearly two decades ago. On “Rehab Reunion,” its role may seem dominant, but Hornsby invites it in as readily as he does all the musical input from the Noisemakers. All are guests at this vibrant pop party and all are made to feel especially welcome.