2019 has been a breakthrough year for a lot of gospel music’s most underrated artists on the American side of the Atlantic, and for my money, there isn’t another act that is making quite the affective statement that bluegrass’ LaTresa & the Signal are in their latest record, the simple but straight The Blood and the River, which is out now everywhere that independent music is sold and streamed. “Lazarus,” “The Valley with My Lord,” “My Prayer” and “Where Angels Abide (Russell’s Song)” don’t even make up half of this album’s contents, and though their evocative depth and ample substance could have made for an interesting extended play, LaTresa & the Signal didn’t stop there, and included eight touching tunes in addition to these sparkling gems.
There’s nothing rushed about The Blood and the River; if you ask me, it’s more than evident that there was some serious time, effort and labor that went into hammering out the refined points of “In the Valley,” “Would You Walk with Jesus” and “Bright Star.” A lot of bands that have a mission similar to that of LaTresa & the Signal’s have been taking the minimalist approach to songwriting in the late 2010s, but this record embraces the eclectic, and moreover, the excesses that a graceful melody can provide.
The Blood and the River is missing one element that I’ve found in most every LP that I’ve reviewed in bluegrass and gospel alike lately – production frills. Though the music is larger than life, particularly in songs where one would expect a lot less grandeur (see “Now I Am Redeemed” to understand what I mean), the mix isn’t intrusive or scooped in the same way that a modern, stadium-shaking country record would be. It’s a conceptual means of making music for these times, but an inventive facet of this group’s studio persona just the same.
Bluegrass and gospel music have always been closer than most genres are, but their marriage sounds a lot more seamless in this album than it has in the recent hybridity we’ve heard out of the Nashville underground. “The Mountain,” the title track, “When I Cross the River” and “Where Angels Abide (Russell’s Song)” are difficult to categorize by conventional critical measurements, but my gut tells me that this was completely intentional on the part of the band. They don’t want to be boxed into a specific scene here – if they did, I doubt they would be as willing to wear their hearts, and influences, on their sleeve as much as they do in this album.
I cannot wait to see LaTresa & the Signal live and in person sometime soon, as there’s definitely no debating that the music of The Blood and the River was meant to be heard amongst a crowd of worshiping bluegrass fans, whose energy would only fuel the performance of the group on stage. This record doesn’t pull any punches and arrives stocked with a litany of layered harmonies that will keep dedicated audiophiles plenty busy this season, and if you haven’t heard this band’s work before, I would recommend this piece as a great place to start.
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