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Published: 2004/06/30
by Brian Ferdman

The Good Life – Railroad Earth

Sugar Hill Records 3983

Since 2001, Railroad Earth has been riding high. Their debut was preceded by a massive amount of hype, and they managed to live up to that hype by receiving a tremendous ovation at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. A self-released album and a year of touring and fanbase-building led to a contract with the esteemed Sugar Hill Records, resulting in the critically-acclaimed Bird In A House. Now Railroad Earth returns with their deeply moving third album, The Good Life.

Although they are anything but fresh-faced youngsters, the men of Railroad Earth are now showing serious signs of maturity. Where previous releases have been highlighted by feverish runs on lightning-fast tunes, The Good Life offers a more introspective display of artistry. Lead singer/guitarist Todd Sheaffer has taken his songwriting to a more profound, emotional level. The darkness is readily apparent in his bitter lyrics on the driving bluegrass of "Bread and Water," as well as the pessimistic and intense Eastern grind of "Goat." Conversely, an air of optimism is audible in both the gently rolling dedication of love in "Storms" and the semi-autobiographical paean to simplicity on the title track, a mellow number built around the loping bass of Johnny Grubb. On one of the most infectious offerings, the rollicking "Long Way To Go," Sheaffer evokes a Sisyphus-like character who rhetorically asks "What is the soul of a man?"

Never before has Railroad Earth exhibited the kind of maturity present on "Mourning Flies," a song that is entirely original in style and structure. Murky string figures and Carey Harmon's pulsating drumbeat accompany Sheaffer's grim and nightmarish images before a perfect shift to brightness occurs as Sheaffer jubilantly sings of a time when "mourning flies, the fields awake and come alive." Sudden angelic accents from John Skehan's mandolin evoke a lifted burden. Ultimately, a series of unique chord changes lead to an unorthodox but tremendous climax filled with an affirmation of love in a powerful and emotive finale.

Of course, with all of this talk of maturity, one should not think Railroad Earth has lost its ability to have fun and pick like wild men. When you have insanely talented instrumentalists, such as Skehan, Tim Carbone, and Andy Goessling, you damn well better take advantage of the situation. Thankfully, producer Stuart Lerman knows what he's doing, and the big three successfully man a litany of instruments ranging from funky saxes to tasteful Hammond organ to finely layered toy piano. They also get a chance to do what they do best, cutting loose and picking up a storm on Skehan's energetic hoedown, "Water Fountain Quicksand."

Lerman has come around at the right time for this band. Their instrumental talents are in full blossom, and Sheaffer's songwriting has never been better. With Lerman's guidance, Railroad Earth has been able to slowly peel back the layers and reveal an even greater depth than found in previous efforts. When describing this band, critics like to casually toss out the words American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, but the comparisons are unfair. If nothing else, The Good Life demonstrates how Railroad Earth is carving their own niche, revealing the magnitude of their own personality, and growing as a band. After all, the emotional core of this album has the group wearing their heart on their sleeve. It’s a bold step forward, transcending the bluegrass/newgrass genre, and, in all likelihood, earning Railroad Earth a new legion of fans.

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