Smoky harmonies and cloudy melodic verses come cascading down on us from above in “All Is Well.” A similar sonic volley follows the lead of a tortured vocal in “Shadows in the Room.” Tommy Emanuel stops in for some collaborative swinging in a patient “That’d Be You.” The rhythm is saturated in sweet suffering of a uniquely American variety in “Till I Get Home,” and for as optimistic a tune as “If It Wasn’t for a Song” feels from a distance, its lyrics feel just as heavy as those we find in the enigmatic “Coal Fed Train.” “Free Again” gets a little help from Shenandoah, but even though he rides solo in “Angels Watching over Me,” “When the Train Comes,” “Chain Gang” and “She Broke My Heart in Spanish,” Billy Droze is always at the eye of a harmonious hurricane no matter where we look in his latest release, the appropriately-title studio album Renaissance. In tracks like Renaissance’s “Shackled and Bound,” Billy Droze reminds bluegrass fans of why the genre has remained as alluring as ever through the 2010’s while sticking to a relatively conservative songwriting template, and though it’s possible that this isn’t his most profound collection of recordings to date, it’s certainly an LP you should hear before the year is out.
You can tell that there’s an emotional investment in every word Droze is singing to us in Renaissance right from the get-go in the tracklist, and though I wouldn’t be the first to point out how angular a lot of the narratives are here, I don’t think this album goes without a certain continuity to its content. One thing that struck me as being particularly forward-thinking was the flow of the music; from where we start off in “Coal Fed Train,” it’s really easy to allow one song to spill into the next while never actually realizing just how deep into the LP we’re getting. Droze’s humble self-awareness is a common theme in tracks like “Shadows in the Room,” “If It Wasn’t for a Song” and “Shackled and Bound,” and although he comes dangerously close to self-indulgence towards the end of the record, I can’t say with any genuine conviction that he ever crosses the line on this occasion. He’s got a great chemistry with his backing band, but more noticeable than that, he seems to be perfectly fine with his vocal skills dominating the big picture no matter what sort of thunder the players behind him are producing.
Renaissance is an album that certainly lives up to its name, and I myself see it as a potential turning point in the eventful career that Billy Droze has had in the 2010’s. This is probably the most mainstream we’ve ever heard him, and though he’s not at all abandoning the bluegrass ethos that got him started in this LP, he’s definitely moving towards a sound that incorporates more from Heartland-style country and folk music (which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily a bad thing by most critical measurements). I’m curious to see what he does next, but at the very least, Renaissance is an interesting statement piece and a credible acquisition for any bluegrass addict.
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