In a genre like bluegrass that’s never deviated too far from its roots in traditional ballads, the notion of authenticity seems to loom large in musicians’ minds — particularly those wishing to gain notoriety and carve a niche for themselves in the canon. On Letters In The Deep, the third album of Cadillac Sky’s career, the band members indicate they’ve got the songwriting chops and the inclination to elevate their sound beyond tradition. However, they give a nod to their roots in the liner notes, saying, “All songs on this album were recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs to obtain the sound and feel of old time bluegrass music.” Although Letters does channel the vivacity that characterizes bluegrass, it’s clear Cadillac Sky aspire to create a less conventional sound. Their roots might be important, but Letters indicates that they seem to be a jumping-off point rather than an anchor.
Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys produced Letters, and while the album doesn’t necessarily sound like the Black Keys, Auerbach’s sonic fingerprints are all over these songs. On the whole, they feature dark, moody arrangements that twist, turn, and evolve, never quite seeming satisfied with their current state and in pursuit of higher things. “Trash Bag” is a pretty compelling case for these wandering tendencies, introducing itself via Fleet Foxes-style harmonies that gracefully yield to a spare guitar/piano verse. This is later torn apart by a borderline dissonant build that resolves beautifully at the song’s end. It’s an effective construction reminiscent of the Jeff Tweedy/Jay Bennett push-pull on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. These thematic mashups don’t always work (aspects of “Part Of My Heart” are moving, but the song as a whole doesn’t feel cohesive), but when they do, the effect is intricate and gorgeous.
Although technically complex, bluegrass songs typically have an effortless, spontaneous sound that’s noticeably absent from many of Letters‘ tracks. With a few exceptions, the album sounds painstakingly planned and constructed, thickly draped orchestral strings punctuated by banjo and mandolin to lighten the effect at key moments. It’s not as overbearing as it sounds, and in many instances elevates what might otherwise be an ordinary melody into an attention-grabber. Creeping opener “Trapped Under The Ice” is one of the more straightforward tracks, pairing a bass line with propulsive, percussive banjo strums to create palpable urgency. In conjunction with one of Bryan Simpson’s better vocal performances and the plaintive twangy guitars that jump in to help close the song, it’s one of the album’s strongest tracks.
A series of small instrumental interludes titled “Lee of the Stone” seem like they should be throw-aways, but instead nicely facilitate transitions in both sound and content from sweet to bitter, twangy to folky. The “lee” of a stone is the sheltered side, untouched by wind or rain: a fitting theme for these grounding moments before exploring the next round of songs. Knockout “Bathsheeba” needs no transitional theme, coming in like a one-two antidote to the keening strings that dominate many of the album’s songs. It’s replete with banjo and mandolin power chords (!) that sidle up next to accomplished fingerpicking, creating something akin to a pop-punk hoedown.
On the whole, Letters could benefit from some self-editing; the effect of tracks like “Trapped Under The Ice” are diminished by clunkier, melodramatic fare like “Ballad of Restored Confidence.” The album may have been recorded live, but given the obvious care that went into the album’s elaborate production, it need not have been assembled with the looseness of a jam session. Eliminating more tracks would make for a stronger album, but there’s still plenty of accomplished, genre-blurring fare to explore here.