Wispy strands of string melodicism await all who give The Blood and the River, the latest release from the gospel/bluegrass fusion crew LaTresa & the Signal, a spin this June, and despite the monolithic qualities of the opening title track, its spiritual sibling “The Mountain” and the concluding ballad “Bright Star,” there’s no getting around the fact that even the more highbrow harmonies in this record equal those of their brethren in this fabulous anthology of Christian Americana. There’s no pop politics, nor any avant-garde symbolism to sort through in The Blood and the River – this is 100% bluegrass with a gospel bend that touches on each genre’s past while looking bravely into the future.
The title track and “Where Angels Abide (Russell’s Song)” have a countrified component tucked into their stately structures, while “Lazarus” and “My Prayer” feel like folk/bluegrass crossover tracks that don’t take enough from either school to be branded with the standard genre labels that we critics turn to the most. I get the impression that LaTresa & the Signal are looking to break away from the crowded scene that they’ve come to command so much respect in here; they’re not letting traditional parameters get in their way, and that in itself deserves to be commended.
The Blood and the River isn’t all about experimentation; “Sea of Galilee” and “Now I Am Redeemed” are very conventional on the surface, and on some levels, require a trained ear to fully appreciate their musical intricacies. LaTresa & the Signal are pulling out all the stops to be as original as possible in this album, but it’s in tracks like these where they prove that their bluegrass stripes aren’t about to give way to some “alternative” identity that was fashioned for them by an A&R exec. As I see it, they’ve worked too hard to distinguish their sound for that to ever be the case.
Surrealism is all the rage right now in American music, from hip-hop and R&B to country and bluegrass, but I’m not hearing a lot of cerebral energy in this piece at all. “Would You Walk with Jesus,” “Lazarus” and “The Valley with My Lord” have extremely flexible bones (which would make them killer live songs for sure), but there’s just not enough space in their tight arrangements for me to tether them to the emergent underground style that critics can’t seem to stop talking about. This record is their own, and to call it anything but an innovative representation of who they truly are as a band would be rather disrespectful towards its aesthetical exceptionality.
Both in the mainstream and in the independent realms of bluegrass and gospel, I don’t think you’re going to find another album that swings with as much of a sensitive harmonic gleam as The Blood and the River does this summer. It’s a highly stylized, creative quantum leap for LaTresa & the Signal, who had come close to delivering something as lofty as this is in the past but hadn’t quite made the mark with as much gusto as they do here. It’s made my month a lot more melodic, and my gut tells me that it will yours as well.