By Antonio Wellman
The Lil Smokies are a bluegrass band based out of Missoula, Montana, and have recently released their third studio album, Tornillo.
Our last album review was for the album, Muir Maid, by the Kitchen Dwellers, and it has been impossible to resist drawing parallels between the two albums. For example, both albums at their heart are bluegrass, the musicianship is impeccable, and neither are afraid to blend different musical elements and genres. Despite this, the end results of each album are totally distinct. While the Kitchen Dwellers fuse bluegrass with psychedelia, reggae, and electronic styles, The Lil Smokies third studio album, Tornillo, contains elements of folk, country, blues, and pop music while still remaining true to their roots as a bluegrass band.
The pop elements are the most surprising, but I find their inclusion to benefit the record. Die hard bluegrass fans and snobs such as myself may mistakenly take this as a bad thing, but recently I’ve become more open and accepting of pop music––even including two pop albums in my top 5 albums of 2019. With that being said, Tornillo certainly isn’t a pop album, but still, elements of pop shine through. The songs are catchy in both the vocal and instrumental lines, and I found myself singing and humming along.
Just like the Kitchen Dwellers did, the Smokies implement effects that bring certain sections of tracks into the stratosphere. The fiddle solo on “Carry Me” is a good example of this, as it employs a phaser that creates interesting rhythms and gives the solo a spacey feel. The dobro lead later in the song uses delays and reverbs to the same effect. The Lil Smokies share singing duty and one major strength of the vocals lies in the lush harmonies on the album. The vocal harmonies are crisp and full and the different timbres of the band’s voices blend together wonderfully. A high point in the album is on the track, “World’s on Fire”, when two vocal lines overlap and intersect while the instruments slowly build, climaxing into a final refrain.
The title track and final song, “Tornillo”, has a pastoral feel in the music, if not the lyrics, that brings to mind old country ballads. While the track is undeniably beautiful, it seems a bit out of place, dropping most of the instruments and replacing them with a piano. The strength of the album rests in the interplay between the different instruments and the delicate and intricate ways they wind their melodies and lines together, so the inclusion of “Tornillo” feels borderline incongruous.
In the end, Tornillo is full of little surprises––from unexpected synth lines to an eastern influenced dobro solo on “Blood Money”. It’s the twists and turns of what initially seems like a familiar road that keeps me coming back to listen to this album––the unexpected hiding within the expected.