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In 2017 America, with all of its contradictions and complexities, it is no longer a cultural resignation to aspire to “live simply,” but is instead an aspiration to find, in the words of Graham Nash, “a code you can live by.”
The Woodsheep, four musical artists – Andrew Preston, Austin Tackett, Melissa Caskey, Matt Holleran -- from the tradition-rich mountains of East Kentucky, begin their highly engaging debut album Watching Mars with “Live Simply,” a tune of disarming directness that matches its lyrical imperative with campfire, sing-along simplicity.
Watching Mars, with its tonal and stylistic variability, sounds more like singer-songwriters bringing their East Kentucky roots to the creative process, rather than an Appalachian traditionalist band seeking to expand their influences. The tracks “Talking Problem,” “Sleeping Man,” and “Why Oh Why” all feature soft, clearly articulated vocal harmonies reminiscent more of early Simon & Garfunkel than anything in the bluegrass tradition. “Talking Problem” is about shyness, “Sleeping Man” a quiet lullaby, and “Why Oh Why” a meditation on the winter season.
“Angel,” the album’s longest track, features a soulful lead vocal by Austin Tackett, and a spare and moody guitar accompaniment. “Angel” uses the power of religious references to create a successful metaphor for the intensity of romantic love. One of the album’s most straightforward fun songs is “Sun On My Side,” a clever break-up story sung with assertive verve by bassist Melissa Caskey and propelled in rollicking style by Andrew Preston’s bluesy piano. “Peach Tree” is the most Appalachian-sounding track, featuring prominent banjo and fiddle working in tandem, and tight mountain harmonies identifying the arboreal spot for rendezvous.
Even more stylistic diversity is found in “Out of the Blue,” which is anchored by a subtle but discernable Grateful Dead groove, features impressive guitar work by Andrew Tackett, and never wears out its welcome at four and a half minutes. The piano ballad “Love is the Most Agonizing Thing,” sung with an unaffected sincerity by Andrew Preston, is perhaps the best example of just how committed The Woodsheep are to not being stylistically pigeonholed. The song aches with an emotional nakedness that elicits thoughts of the late Leonard Cohen.
“Simplicity,” as defined by The Woodsheep, is not a lack of sophistication or nuance, but instead a determination to keep their focus uncluttered and clear in order to creative rich musical palettes, as they have so successfully done with their debut release, Watching Mars.