[BLUEGRASS] Contemporary pickers have a very real dilemma: They can play strictly traditional bluegrass and run the risk of flying completely under the radar, or they can attempt to modernize the form and risk the revulsion of their peers. The ones I've never heard of do the former, and the ones I tend to hate do the latter. Then there are great bands like Jackstraw, that write modern songs so well-versed in the classics that they achieve a timeless quality of their own.
Jackstraw's dual frontmen, Darrin Craig and David Pugh, are able singers and pickers, but more important, they share a clear musical vision on Sunday Never Comes. Jackstraw is classic without feeling precious; highly instrumental but not jammy; funny but never cute. The band can tackle songs of vastly different emotional weights and keep them safely under the same aesthetic roof: "Hurts When I See You" is a haunting, lovely waltz that stands in stark contrast to the title track, which mixes sepia-toned sentimentalism and gallows humor as it trades train-whistle verses and galloping instrumentals.
All of these songs could just as well be traditional numbers—you won't find songs about Facebook or cellphones in the collection—but one hears Jackstraw's unique bent throughout the disc. This is decidedly Northwest music—Jackstraw covers the best song from Portland songwriter W.C. Beck's recent Kansawyer disc, "Poor Man," and co-penned the cooking instrumental closer "If I Die" with Caleb Klauder—right down to an elusive darkness that surfaces in the voices of Jackstraw's singers and in the full-bodied Adam Selzer production.
To be clear, there's nothing particularly new about Jackstraw making a great modern roots record. This one is just particularly great.
SEE IT: Jackstraw plays the Alberta Rose Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 3. 8 pm. $12 advance, $15 day of show. All ages (minors must be accompanied by a parent or guardian).