“Stars and Satellites” by Trampled By Turtles

Trampled By Turtles’ sixth album in eight years, Stars and Satellites, is in many ways a fine introduction to the band who stand as one of the rare few that unpretentiously deserve a hyphenated genre classification: let’s go with “post-punk bluegrass” for now. The album opens with “Midnight On The Interstate”, which infuses some pop sensibilities into Dave Simonett’s compositional nature and gently eases into what some may call a lighter side of the Minnesota quintet. Beneath the opening chords reminiscent of Obadiah Parker’s rendition of “Hey Ya” is a mature complexity that other banjo-driven pop songs like those of Mumford & Sons haven’t yet reached and The Avett Brothers have veered away from in recent years. What’s powerful on Stars and Satellites as a whole is what’s not there: overly flashy chops, one standout instrument or voice taking control, attempts to grow beyond what they are while recognizing how they’ve developed.

A standout on the record, “Alone” opens with the same gentle harmonies and moderate tempo strumming but gives way to TBT’s signature hard-driven bluegrass. The band’s rhythmic sense is on full display all throughout the record on tracks like “Alone” and the instrumental “Risk”. While Stars and Satellites sounds more produced than other TBT albums, it’s a real accomplishment to get this kind of driving feel in the studio with no percussion needed to energize the guitar, bass, mandolin, and fiddle, the latter masterfully ripped into by Ryan Young with an intensity thicker than his beard.

“Widower’s Heart” is Simonett’s writing highlight on the album. “I can’t help it if I have a widower’s heart/I try to get out of bed but I can’t seem to start/When I hit the road it was freezing and dark/and I hope it’s warmer wherever you are” is mysterious in its simplicity. The very nature of the brokenhearted is redrawn and cast out to sea to come back anew yet familiar and universal. The motif of traveling the American landscape that’s present throughout the entire record is brought to its fullest fruition on this track without surrendering to the church of Willie Nelson or Steve Earle that far too many country and bluegrass bands lean on without recognizing that both Earle and Nelson’s greatest gift to the music has been the notion that we can pay homage while moving towards ourselves and remaining fresh in our perspectives. “Sorry” shows off the band’s convergence of what’s become characteristic of TBT’s sound with a grown-up look at their lyrical content, “There’s more to life than dying early/it’s new to me so please bear with me/And I promise that I’ll do better.”

To return to the concept of labeling TBT accurately for a moment, it’s notable that in their eight year run, selling out shows across the country—including most recently at the Paradise here in Boston—the boys have never not called Duluth, Minnesota their home. They don’t sound like band that could be from the backwoods but now are distracted by window-shopping on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue. They sound authentic, for better worse, so it’s hard to think of this music as anything but northern bluegrass, cold country, or something of the like.

Stars and Satellites is a headstrong effort from TBT. In rare form in today’s “kipple-ized” music marketplace, the boys don’t strain for freshness to define their sound but rely on individual experience and personal identity to speak with universality and specificity at the same time.

By Jake Sorgen

 

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