Backwoods (CD – MP3) was produced by Larry Keel and Keller Williams, and the album bears more of Williams’ technical touch than Keel’s signature grit, striking a balance that is awfully becoming of the group. While it sounds a bit slick for such a down-and-dirty group like Keel and Natural Bridge, there’s a clarity and separation heretofore unheard on any Keel recording.
Jason Flournoy’s banjo rings clear and true throughout, Jenny Keel’s bass playing is just right in the mix, and Mark Schmick’s mandolin is alternately featured and utilized as a melodic bedrock. Each player’s contribution is enhanced depending on the song. This interesting approach gives Keel’s unmistakable voice and singular guitar playing a bit more melodic heft, and the album comes across as more of a group effort than their previous work.
Where Keel’s songwriting and performing always served as the focus for his bands over the years, Backwoods brings the whole quartet’s talents to the forefront, utilizing songs written by Schmick and Flournoy as well as 4 Keel contributions. It makes for a decidedly less foreboding listen than the typical Keel record.
Shmick’s restless voice brings a wild west slant to his own “Ghost Driver” and “Swarming Bees,” while “Diamond Break” and “They” exhibit Keel’s typical emotional and verbal command. Flournoy’s “Bohemian Reel” captures his reverent traditionalism in a classic instrumental trade-off where every player takes their turn before their contributions culminate in a joyous climax.
Perhaps no song better encapsulates the group’s sound than the constantly shifting “Crocodile Man,” which meanders through steep, jazzy terrain often explored by progressive acoustic acts but perfected here.
As usual, the group shines when interpreting other artists. Keel firmly grabs Tom T. Hall’s “Faster Horses” by the neck and makes it his own, fiddle legend Kenny Baker’s “Bluegrass in the Backwoods” gallops along with an energy unimagined by it’s creator, and Lennon/McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son” is sweetly embellished with vocal harmonies by the two Keels.
With Backwoods, Larry Keel and Natural Bridge have emerged from the often dark, sinister woods of their past into a clearing full of diverse possibilities and boundless potential.
-Hear Samples of the album at the above links!