On Love. Ain’t Love, Yonder Mountain String Band finds plenty of new twists on the way to making a stellar record. Their previous release, Black Sheep, served as an introduction to the newest members of the group and the energy their new band configuration brought to the group. With the niceties out of the way, Yonder innovates, expands, and evolves on their newest release, crafting an album that will leave fans — lovingly known far and wide as the “Kinfolk” — shell-shocked and grinning.
Dave Johnston gets things started with “Allison,” merging his quirky, deadpan voice with his staccato banjo and the droning chords of Allie Kral on fiddle. These instruments have a long history of complimenting each other, and after the last few years on the road together, the players have forged a simpatico relationship as well. On the opener and follow-up instrumental “Fall Outta Line,” Kral shows a remarkable dexterity and willingness to commit to providing atmosphere over leads. Add to that the facility of mandolinist Jacob Jolliff and his ability to cycle between background picking and fiery leads, and the selfless nature of Yonder becomes an invaluable tool in the construction of these wonderful new songs.
The core elements of Yonder have only grown more distinct. The affability and hopefulness of guitarist Adam Aijala‘s songwriting and vocals give “Bad Taste” a strong foundation rooted in the past without locking it into the group’s former patterns. Bassist Ben Kaufmann sits at the heart of “Take A Chance on Me,” providing the main voice and a rock solid bass loop for the rest of the band to slink through jazzy groove-fest. Johnston provides a meditation on perspective packed with home-spun wisdom as deep as his vocal tones.
Though Love. Ain’t Love is solid and entertaining for the first five tracks, the sixth, “Used To It” is the tune where Yonder truly moves beyond what they were previously capable of producing. The song — a plaintive piano based ballad heavily featuring Kaufmann — transcends the boundaries and limitations of what Yonder can be and asks a fundamental question: How good can they be? Though a tough act to follow, another sterling instrumental led by Aijala comes next, with his guitar-laden line weaving through his comrades-in-arms as they expound effortlessly.
Showing that their tongue is still fully capable of finding their cheeks, Yonder found a little space on Love. Ain’t Love to indulge in every modern band’s favorite pastime: the 1970’s cover. King Harvest‘s soft rock classic “Dancin’ In The Moonlight” gets rootsified as only Yonder can, and the result is a cheese-dripping belly full of musical comfort food that warms the body and soul.
Yonder may be varying their song structure, but they certainly aren’t abandoning the string music that they named themselves for all those years ago. On “Kobe The Dog,” we get as fine a modern banjo tune as you will hear. The song even closes with another effort at thematically linking song transitions, with a plaintive dog bark morphing into a trains-spinning, steam-driven wheels. “Last Of The Railroad Men,” which comes next, takes a lyrical left turn as wisdom gets thrown out the window with the flash of beauty.
The final instrumental of the album, “Up For Brinkleys,” is a rapid fire show of force from Yonder that seems to be more of statement about band solidarity than anything else. While the Yonder Mountain String Band is dead set on expanding upon their limitations, their core is as strong as it has ever been. The way each player detaches from the central jam as they prepare to lend original passages is informative. The final track of the disc, an islands’ energy-infused song called “Groovin’ Away” seems to born from the Yonder’s annual Strings & Sol south-of-the-border getaway. The easy, breezy feel of the music is a perfect way to end this disc, serving as a sunny Aloha from a band both arriving on the scene and finishing their latest recording.
Expectations for the follow-up to Black Sheep have been high, and Yonder has managed to produce a record that easily meets and exceeds the wildest dreams of serious fans. Love. Ain’t Love delivers songs that stand head and shoulders above the material on their previous album, which in itself a strong accomplishment. It may be too early to call Love. Ain’t Love the finest Yonder Mountain String Band studio record, though it is surely a solid contender for the crown and a remarkable achievement for the band. There are songs on this disc that do not just deserve but demand the chance to evolve onstage over the next decade, becoming what are sure to be iconic musical touchstones for Kinfolk young and old. You can head over to Yonder’s website here to purchase the album, or stream it below: