After a three-year wait, bluegrass quartet Southern Raised has returned with Another World, the band's first album for StowTown Records after multiple independent releases. These four siblings are well-seasoned performers at this point, and if Another World isn't their best album, then it's at least their best-sounding. This is a beautiful set of bluegrass/gospel tunes, mixed to perfection and performed with the adept skill that these classically-trained virtuosos are known for. They all share vocal duties, while the oldest, Lindsay, plays bass, Sarah plays banjo, Emily plays violin and mandolin, and the youngest, Matthew, plays acoustic guitar. Rarely on the record will you hear anything besides their four voices and four stringed instruments; only occasionally is there any percussion, and even then, it's often merely a tambourine or shaker. The jaw-dropping playing and harmonies are all that's needed to fill up the sound, making for a constantly lovely listening experience, albeit sometimes a boring and indistinct experience, too.
To fully appreciate the talents of these players, look no further than the band's rendition of "Beethoven's 5th," a fan-favorite from Southern Raised's live shows. The track is so thrilling and well-paced that it may leave listeners clamoring for an instrumental album. Thankfully, though, "5th" gets one-upped by the album's best song, the title track. "Another World" is the standard-bearer for the quartet's expertise: old-fashioned bluegrass/country style with gorgeous three-part harmonies. "Another World" also features the album's most memorable chorus and its best lyrics, the latter inspired by the C.S. Lewis quote, "If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world."
However, "Another World" might be the only song that would still work if stripped of all of the harmonies and first-rate instrumentation; the song has a great lyric matched with a great melody, but that can't be said of everything here. Even with a handful of co-writers on this album, songs like "Letting Go" and the opener, "Up All Night," are frustratingly simple at their core. Simplicity wouldn't be a bad thing if the songs didn't blend together, but most of the songs have similar sounds and even follow the same formula: jump straight into three- or four-part harmonies in the first chorus, followed immediately by banjo or fiddle solos. Only a few tracks stand out, like "Instead," which rises above the pack with a unique lyrical topic, about how God was under no obligation or compulsion to save sinners, but instead sent Jesus to die for our sins purely out of mercy.
Another issue throughout this album is the lead singers. Even when the sisters sound like country contemporaries Aubrie Sellers and Kacey Musgraves, these siblings seem so focused on spot-on performances that they forget to sell the songs. They end up not sounding believable, which is particularly true of Matthew, the least emotive singer here. He only leads one song, "Beautiful Moments in Time," but all that song does is display why the brother doesn't step up to the mic more often. "When Jesus Came Down," on the other hand, is a wonderful counter-example, where Matthew and the three sisters take turns singing, to great effect. "Came Down" also has a ridiculously gorgeous ending, with show-stopping harmonies that will capture anyone's attention. Other songs, like "The Miracle in Me" and "That's What Love Can Do," also have such bravura finales that it's hard not to appreciate all that this band does so well.
The album closes with a faithful-yet-overlong cover of "I'd Rather Have Jesus," which speaks to Another World as a whole: it's too much of a good thing. But rest assured, what Southern Raised does is most certainly a very good thing, and while this album may not beckon for many repeat listens, it is overflowing with talent and beauty, only suggesting how great Southern Raised is live in concert.
- Review date: 5/3/17, written by Chase Tremaine of Jesusfreakhideout.com