Six Years marks an evolution for Charlottesville’s Old School Freight Train, in which the band leaps from the well-traveled track of “newgrass” onto a blend of pop and traditional music that’s all its own.
The young string benders formed in 2003, and took their jazz-infused bluegrass jams to festival stages. They caught the ear of newgrass legend (and Jerry Garcia collaborator) David Grisman, who asked OSFT to perform as his backing band. CMH Records tapped the band to contribute to their Pickin’ On series, playing bluegrass versions of hits from artists like Coldplay and Wilco. Given this dabble in pop/bluegrass fusion, perhaps OSFT’s new track is not entirely unexpected.
On their 2005 release, Run, OSFT covered the jazzy newgrass territory that made the band a hit on the festival circuit, and established the members as masters of technique on their respective instruments.
For Six Years, the band retained its musicianship and interpersonal chemistry, but the group’s skills serve tight, crafted songs.
Gone are the bluegrass boom-chick rhythms. Each track on Six Years weaves elements of jazz, folk, country, rock, blues, Latin and Celtic styles into pop songs rarely clocking in over four minutes. The OSFT technique and chemistry manifests itself in each song’s sense of musical geometry—guitar, bass, drums, violin and mandolin weave into catchy pop melodies without overcrowding. The self-produced record is high-quality, so listeners can savor the rich bass runs, vocal harmonies and a particular highlight—violinist Nate Leath coloring moods with a cello that soars and snarls appropriately.
Six Years opens with a somber rendition of the Blondie hit “Heart of Glass” that sets the broken-hearted tone (and marks OSFT’s bid for a MySpace download hit). On each song the band builds a soft nesting place for sensitive vocals in the vein of John Mayer and Jack Johnson. The lazy afternoon feel on “Let Me Go” or the girl-dumps-boy melancholy of “Seems Like It’s Over” and “Get Down” would fit nicely on today’s FM dial.
Whether they find commercial success (in the same way Old Crow Medicine Show refined its traditional sound into dark postmodern country on last year’s popular release Tennessee Pusher), OSFT has an effort deserving consideration.
The most excitement comes when OSFT shovels some coal into its engine. On tracks like “Wake Up,” or the title song “Six Years,” the band opens into a bigger, more rock-driven sound that adds a bit of fire to its technical prowess. Hopefully OSFT will continue trying out new ways of playing together and taking more evolutionary risks. Six Years is a low-key breakup record—it will be interesting to see where the band goes when the wounds heal.