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There’s something heroic about a band that can survive in the music business for more than a couple of years. Old Crow Medicine Show marks its 20th anniversary as a working outfit with Volunteer, its sixth studio album, full of the kind of punk-inspired string-band rave-ups, bluegrass-infused singing, and wistful folk tunes fans have learned to expect.
A fresh twist comes from the more polished feel Nashville producer Dave Cobb brings to a number of the stronger compositions, such as “Homecoming Party,” about a family man returning from a long road trip. Steady driving bass, banjo, and guitar lines intertwine with a chorus of ultra-smooth three-part harmonies to give the song a poignancy the lyrics alone cannot deliver. On the closing “Whirlwind,” a couple looks back on the life they’ve built together. Well-arranged steel guitar and vocal harmonies create a compelling sound that feels like a haunting string arrangement. While Volunteer plows plenty of familiar Old Crow Medicine Show territory, there’s just enough new growth to keep things entertaining.
Deciding where Volunteer fits into the band’s discography can get complicated. The songwriting isn’t as consistently strong as 2014’s Grammy-winning Remedy and not as adventurous as 2008’s Tennessee Pusher. That said, admirers of the group’s first two albums should find much to like. Cobb’s use of analog equipment and Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A has allowed him to give the string-band numbers a naturally transparent sound that suits the material. In many respects, Volunteer delivers a valentine to longtime fans, mixing a bit of all the group’s various styles into one package. Songs like “Flicker and Shine” and “Shout Mountain Music” will likely appeal to those who love the band’s Appalachian speed-core anthems while “Look Away” addresses listeners partial to lead singer/songwriter Ketch Secor’s romantic depictions of Southern culture. But for all its charms, the box-of-chocolates approach prevents Volunteer from being as cohesive and interesting as it might have been.
The 180-gram LP is ruler flat and dead quiet. Cobb’s production sounds even better on vinyl than on the very respectable CD version. Because Old Crow Medicine Show doesn’t employ a drummer, accurately capturing Morgan Jahnig’s bass is critical to the presentation. Engineer Eddie Spear has done a fine job of integrating the full dynamic range of Jahnig’s work with the forceful playing of his five bandmates. The lyrics, photography, and liner notes are also well-rendered on the record’s disc sleeve. All that’s missing is a vinyl-friendly lining in the LP sleeve.
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