Threefifty is one of those unique configurations with a stylistic foot in more than a few camps while still defying neat and tidy categorization. The marriage of classical music conceits with those of the bluegrass genre might seem unlikely at best. Threefifty’s founding members, Brett Parnell and GeremySchulick, have brought about this union with great sophistication however. The band’s latest album Gently Among the Coals is a twelve song collection travelling to places never previously on Threefifty’s itinerary and produces spectacular results. It is certainly a gamble, but the songwriting and musical performances alike pull off this improbable stylistic hybridization without a stutter step or hint of hesitation. It isn’t a confidence announcing itself with brash, broad-brushed fury. Instead, the assurance comes through in musicianship and songwriting that never wavers.
The clustering of guitars opening the song “Crossing State Lines” has a wonderfully reverberating feel and seem to wind together in ever increasing circles. The melodic virtues of the song are apparent from the outset and gradually attain quite a rousing quality – one can hear the band’s classical stains seeping through the mix, but they blend nicely with their other inclinations. Its instrumental touch is sure from the first. “Allegiance” features the outstanding vocal talents of Leon Guerrero and the singing brings the outstandingly poetic lyric to vivid life. It is a melancholy tune without ever lapsing into outright despair and it is, perhaps, only Guerrero’s voice preventing such a skid. The performance is, nevertheless, note perfect and strikes an emotional chord from the outset. Threefifty’s album takes another climb up the ladder with the song “Andromeda”. The steady rise from a quasi-classical opening into some tightly wound and highly rhythmic acoustic guitar playing is followed by Threefifty adding to this mini-aresenal in unexpected ways as the song progresses. It straddles the line between forceful and thoughtful in a way few songs do on this release.
There are murky choral voices mixed with a sustained synthesizer sheen at the beginning of “Unanchored” soon segueing into a stately, though muffled, guitar march. There are no clear words emerging from this instrumental, but the ghostly voices haunting the sonic landscape are more than up to the task of invoking mood. “You Are Going the Right Way” has a decidedly lyrical quality and certainly relies on guitar to achieve much of those effects, though the song is colored by clever adornments coming in at just the right moments. The poetry of Vicki Kennelly Stock, deceased mother of band member Jennifer Stock, propels the lyrics of “The Door” and finds perfect expression in the songwriting arrangement. The vocal melody is equally effective at helping get the fine words over. Famed electronic musician and producer Daedelus brings a lot of fire to the table with his collaboration on the track “More”. It’s a near ideal and viscerally produced song with bracing percussion and a number of interlocking melodies that easily meld into one another. The penultimate song on Gently Among the Coals, “Running in a Burning House”, is marvelously titled for its relatively tranquil surface and features another stirring vocal performance. This album succeeds on every front and, yet, never alienates the listener. Threefifty has produced a more than memorable album with Gently Among the Coals – they’ve achieved a new artistic peak they will no doubt push even harder to top next time out.