2 stars out of 5
When you hear the word “bluegrass,” you probably think of southeastern America, not southeastern Europe.
Nevertheless, bluegrass quintet Druha Trava hail from the Czech Republic, a nation that has seen the rise of a thriving bluegrass community over the last half century.
So, what does Czechoslovakian bluegrass sound like? Well, if Druha Trava’s latest album, “Good Morning, Friend” is any indication, it sounds an awful lot like American bluegrass.
Even the lyrics are sung in English. Lead vocalist Robert Krestan’s voice may be gruff and imperfect, but his English is immaculately coherent. Furthermore, his weathered tone is ideal for the contemplative songs that populate the album.
Instrumentally, the songs feature exactly what you’ve come to expect from bluegrass music: banjo, mandolin, guitar and acoustic bass are all accounted for and in full force. They weave together to create both pleasant, meandering melodies and boisterous, knee-slapping ones.
Those knee-slaps might just come in handy too. Like most bluegrass bands, Druha Trava doesn’t feature a drummer. Instead, they use their varied stringed instruments in a syncopated, rhythmic fashion. They pull it off, for the most part, but a mandolin keeping a simple back-beat can leave the listener wanting a bit more percussive flair.
The defining characteristic of “Good Morning, Friend” is not the lack of a drummer, but the fact that it is an album bursting with cover songs.
Druha Trava is largely successful in converting an impressive collection of classics into enjoyable bluegrass songs. Their rendition of Creedence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising,” for instance, overflows with ornate banjo fills and rivals the allure of the more sparse original.
Likewise, when the evocative chorus of Mark Knopfler’s “What it is” is reimagined with a lonesome slide guitar, the result is hauntingly beautiful.
But it seems that Druha Trava is content with merely tweaking the original songs and never truly revolutionizing them. We’re left with a collection of cover songs that are entirely adequate, but entirely unnecessary.
However, the assortment of cover songs is supplemented by a handful of songs actually written by Druha Trava .
Three of these are instrumental bluegrass tracks, full of bouncy banjo and mandolin. Sprinkled throughout the album, they provide enjoyable interludes, but are unremarkable and quickly forgotten.
“When Death Does Us Apart,” the only original track to feature vocals, is defined by a mournful violin and oblique lyrics (“Our hug disappears to the fog on the shore.”) The song has a certain melancholy beauty, but placed alongside tunes written by the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Johnny Cash, it fails to leaving a lasting impression.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned how surprising it is that Druha Trava – a band from the Czech Republic – was playing good old fashioned bluegrass. After listening to “Good Morning, Friend,” I’m sorry to say that’s the only surprising thing about them.
Nick Scheidies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.