Though it comes to us in a gentle strut, there’s a lot of urgency to the lyrical narrative in the title cut of Rock Hearts’ debut album Starry Southern Nights, currently out everywhere good bluegrass is sold and streamed. Set to be the second music video and third official radio-bound single from the record, this song is absolutely one of the more identity-capturing compositions you’re going to hear in the tracklist of Starry Southern Nights, but if you really want to get a good handle on what this band is all about, I’d recommend spinning the entire album uninterrupted.
Harmonies tell us a lot about the emotionality of the verses in “Whispering Waters,” “Wake up and Smell the Coffee” and the swift “Stagger Lee,” and had they not been given as big a part in the grander scheme of things, I don’t know that it would’ve been possible for us to appreciate just how melodic a sound Rock Hearts really have here. They’re very generous with the warmth of the string play in this record, and while that’s been the case with a lot of the ‘grass I’ve been listening to lately, this is coming from a group straight out of obscurity.
There’s not a lick of pretentiousness to be found in this LP, and given the technicalities that drive home “Don’t Take It Too Bad,” “Juxtaposed” and their cover of “Don’t Let Smokey Mountain Smoke Get in Your Eyes,” that’s really something Rock Hearts should be proud of. The complexities of a conventional bluegrass outing are all left intact here, but it would be criminal to suggest the freeing feel of modern Americana wasn’t influencing the stylization of the verses in songs like “Whispering Waters.” This band has a diverse sound, but being that they’re a pastoral act out of New England, I suppose I should have expected as much.
Rock Hearts have some really awesome chemistry in every track included in Starry Southern Nights, but in the case of the album-opening “99 Year Blues” (a cover of the 1972 Hot Tuna single), I think it’s impossible to ignore just how well these players bring out the best in each other. There’s no competing for the spotlight in this performance; only feeding into each other with provocative grooves that take the rock n’ roll framework of the composition and refashion it for the wants and desires of the contemporary bluegrass fanatic.
Starry Southern Nights is a great debut album without dispute, and while it’s definitely featuring a couple of rough edges here and there, it has enough of a kick to compensate for any surface level shortcomings that I personally came across in preparation for this review. Rock Hearts are entering the market at what could be the most competitive era for bluegrass, Americana and roots bands in general, but as long as they keep their collective nose to the grindstone in the years to come, I think this will be but the first of many hits they rack up in their indie career.
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