Cobalt Miles of Sky CD Review, Bluegrass Unlimited [June 2005 Issue]
For a band called True North, these folks certainly take the listener in many directions. While rooted in bluegrass, this Oregon sextet incorporates elements of folk, swing, blues, and rock on “Cobalt Miles Of Sky,” their debut recording. Four of the bandmembers contribute a large body of original material to their repertoire, eight of the CD’s fourteen tracks in all. Highlights include the somber “Roadside Cross” and harddriving bluegrass songs like “HeartShaped Rock.”
They're obviously not afraid to boldly navigate new territory insofar as their choice of covers is concerned. A temposhifting rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” is surprisingly effective, as are renditions of songs by Rodney Crowell, Bobby Troup, and Bob Dylan. But it’s the thoughtful and moving version of Patty Griffin’s “Long Ride Home” that truly shows how emotionally effective the group can be.
Much of that is due to lead singer Kristen Grainger, who also wrote the lion’s share of True North’s material. With a voice reminiscent of a muted Bonnie Raitt, she skillfully explores the narrative terrain they cover. Guitarist/mandolinist Dan Wetzel takes over the lead vocal chores on a handful of tunes, with fiddler Jeff Shippy handling some on his own song, “Train Man.” Resonator guitarist Tim Darby, banjoist Matt Gray, and bassist Sam Samuels make all the stylistic shifts seamlessly, and the pickers get to stretch out on the album’s lone instrumental, “Redeye.”
If you're a listener who’s willing to wander the farther reaches of the musical landscape, “Cobalt Miles Of Sky” gives evidence that True North is a very skilled and imaginative guide. (True North, www.truenorthbluegrass.com.) HK
Cobalt Miles of Sky CD Review, Vintage Guitar Magazine [April 15, 2005]
After you've been writing reviews for a couple of years, CDs just show up in your mailbox. To be perfectly candid, concurrent with Sturgeon’s law, 99% of them suck. But every once in awhile a disk rises like a phoenix, out of the sludge pile, resplendent. True North’s Cobalt Miles of Sky gets my big multi-colored bird award for this month.
Although they categorize themselves as a bluegrass band, True North are more of a folkgrass band, similar to Montana’s Kane’s River. Kristen Grainger’s lead vocals have a decidedly singer-songwriter lilt as opposed to a hardcore bluegrass twang. Grainger is joined by Tim Darby on dobro, Matt Gray on banjo, Jeff Shippy on fiddle and vocals, Sam Samuels on bass, and Dan Wetzel on mandolin, guitar and vocals. Their material includes tunes by Rodney Crowell, Jimmy Page, Randy Weeks, Patti Griffin, and Bob Dylan, along with eight originals. Not a single Bill Monroe tune or bluegrass standard among the cuts.
While their originals such as Grainger’s “Long Tearful Goodbye” and Wetzel’s “Fool Myself” display fine melodic sensibilities, their covers of Rodney Crowell’s “Shame on the Moon” and Bob Dylan’s “You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” emphasize the band’s romantic approach to music. Instead of going for a hard-driving sound, True North are more laid back, similar to John Reischman’s Jaybirds.
Produced by Dan Wetzel and Dale Adkins, and engineered by Dale Adkins at Adams Ridge Studios, Cobalt Miles of Sky has a warm relaxed sonic palette that reinforces the music’s lyrical bent. While not as polished as the latest Alison Krauss studio release, the sound on Cobalt Miles of Sky still compares well with many acoustic albums from establised labels.
Like the Hit and Run Bluegrass Band, and unlike Open Road Bluegrass Band, True North has decided to go the independent route rather than try to sign with a label. In this age of the Internet, Amazon, and an almost continuous stream of summer festivals, independent bands have more opportunities to prosper without a major label than at any time in the past. String Cheese Incident’s immense success shows that times have definitely changed.
True North’s relaxed and lyrical musical style should appeal to fans of folk, acoustic, and bluegrass music. I hope to hear a great deal more from them in the future. — Steven Stone, www.vintageguitar.com
Cobalt Miles of Sky CD Review, Talent on Display [February 17, 2005]
True North’s folk-tinged bluegrass runs parallel to the Earth’s axis. Their well-aligned and cohesive signature sound on their first CD Cobalt Miles of Sky features 14 songs, eight of which are originals. While not exactly clear from the songs or the liner notes, the album’s title is apparently inspired by a poem about Paris written in 1923 by poet/painter E. E. Cummings. Like the painter who was moving towards a fusion of “naturalistic representation and expressionism” in the thirties, True North also captures an eclectic mixture of realism and abstraction in their art.
Based in Salem, Oregon, True North features Tim Darby (dobro), Kristen Grainger (lead Vocals), Matt Gray (banjo), Sam Samuels (bass), Jeff Shippy (guitar, fiddle, vocals) andd Dan Wetzel (mandolin, guitar , vocals). This CD was co produced by Dan Wetzel and Dale Adkins. Despite their use of bluegrass instruments, True North’s modernistic acoustic music is invigorated with original instrumental interplay and a palate of colors built around Kristen Grainger’s enchanting lead vocals, enriched with mellifluous harmonies. Their instrumental standout, “Redeye,” is but one of many demonstrations of their first-rate and astute approach to song arrangement. Wetzel and Gray co-wrote “Redeye” while killing time during a photo shoot, named for the red glare in the eyes that sometimes show up in amateur photos.
The band’s covers are drawn from Bobby Troup, Jimmy Page/Robert Plant, Patti Griffin, Randy Weeks, Bob Dylan, and Rodney Crowell. These are given some interpretive twists and emotional electricity that make them their own. The nearly hour-long set of music has a number of impressive original numbers.
The album opens with “Twilight Years,” written for everyone who has ever witnessed the slow deterioration of a loved, elderly person. The lyrics were inspired by the long-lasting and never-ending love of Grainger’s grandparents, despite their seperation by death. “Heart-Shaped Rock” is an up-tempo and joyful song that Grainger wrote about longing and the role that luck plays in fate and romance. “Long Tearful Goodbye” is about making the best of a situation in which two lovers must leave each other, knowing in their hearts that it is the right thing to do, but neither want to part. It is particularly directed at the many Americans who left their loved ones to go to war in Iraq. “Roadside Cross,” the lead sung by Dan Wetzel, is a ballad inspired by a white cross that Grainger saw along highway 22 to the Oregon Coast. She made up her own version of the story behind that cross, who it represents, and how it got there. “Sweetie Pie Boogie” is a swingy song dedicated to Kristen’s daughter, Sammie Sue, who’s “sweet as a jar of huckleberry jam” and who delights in providing all sorts of home-bakedtreats for the members of True North from chocolate cookies to biscuits and pancakes.
Besides Kristen Grainger, the band features some other good songwriters. Jeff Shippy wrote and sings “Train Man” as a tribute to his grandather who was killed by a train when the engineer failed to blowthe whistle that warned people of the oncoming train. He died when Jeff’s mother was only a teenager. Dan Wetzel wrote “Fool Myself” on a cold, wet Oregon winter day when the gloomy weather brought back the sting of a broken heart. Dan does a nice emotional job vocalizing his feelings.
Cobalt Miles of Sky is a fusion of opposite ends of the traditional and contemporary musical spectrum that allows True North to ideally calibrate with the Universe. Of course, their impressive musicianship, material and arrangments help a lot, too. — Joe Ross, www.talentondisplay.com
Cobalt Miles of Sky CD Review, Salem Monthly [February 5, 2005]
My taste in bluegrass doesn't usually get past the traditional stuff. I'll take Flatt and Scruggs, the Louvin Brothers or Bill Monroe over most of the new stuff coming out these days. Having said that, I have to admit that “Cobalt Miles of Sky,” the debut album by True North, is definitely growing on me. Mostly fronted by the ever-so-slightly lonesome vocals of Kristen Grainger, True North possesses a unique, sparse sound that harkens back to simpler times yet still manages to add a fresh and contemporary sound to the bluegrass tradition.
One thing I appreciate about CMOS is that it doesn't start out with the typical high plinking banjo-lead hoedown right from the get go. Instead we are treated with the sweet, reflective “Twilight Years” in which Grainger paints the story of an elderly woman looking back on her life, without a shred of pretension: “It’s her twilight years and she sits alone/ and her last surviving friend is the telephone/ does she know the truth as the sun goes down/ that her whole world’s become this tired town?”
But it wouldn't be bluegrass without banjos and three part harmonies and True North delivers in a tasteful and easygoing manner — particularly on “Heart-Shaped Rock.” On the up-tempo “Baby, Baby All the Time,” the band switches gears and prove they can swing with the best of them! There is some fine solo work by Matt Gray (banjo), Jeff Shippy (fiddle) and Dan Wetzel (mandolin). Shippy's fiddle brings to mind jazz violin pioneer Stephane Grapelli.
There’s one instrumental and a few covers sprinkled throughout this mostly original collection of 14 songs, but the standout tune is their artful cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In the Rain,” (which enabled me to hear all the lyrics for the first time). Played like a bluegrass “La Bamba,” the band are clearly having a good time here. Other tracks worthy of note are Shippy’s “Train Man,” with some great bluegrass breakdowns, and guitarist Dan Wetzel’s original “Fool Myself;” which to these ears is slightly reminiscent of classic Buckingham and Nicks.
Grainger’s voice isn't as down-home or twangy as say, Gillian Welch, but no less authentic, with faint echoes of vintage Emmy Lou Harris and, dare I say, Joni Mitchell? Throughout the albumn, the band exhibits a seasoned professionalism without the showboating often heard in lesser-experienced musicians of the genre. The production has a warm, analog sound that this reviewer found easy on the ears. Be warned: True North employ some catchy melodies that can get stuck in your head if you are not too careful… — Daniel Dustin, Salem Monthly
Cobalt Miles of Sky CD Review, NW Bluegrass [February 5, 2005]
Delightful. Refreshing. Innovative. And so forth and so on.
True North’s debut album Cobalt Miles of Sky is a wonderful assortment of contemporary bluegrass with various twists and turns along the way. The traditional themes are well represented…heartbreak, faded love, thriving love, death and even a train. The songs are all worthy of this stellar effort, with tasty instrumentation and tight harmonies. Good luck finding a favorite! Put the CD in the player and you will find it difficult not to listen, and listen closely.
Eight of the songs are originals, written by four different True North band members. Tunes range from pensive ballads to driving bluegrass to swing and jazz and even a taste of the blues worked in for good measure. There is also a Dylan tune, “Youre Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” which I could not remember from my Dylan days…but I know it now thanks to True North. True North’s jumpy renditions of Bobby Troup’s ”Baby, Baby All the Time” and Jimmy Page’s “Fool in the Rain” are guaranteed to have your head bobbing and your toes tapping.
The depth of Kristen Grainger’s emerging songwriting talent is truly astounding. Her soulful lead vocals and harmony singing are also a pleasure to the ear. ”Sweetie Pie Boogie” sounds like an old-timey standard that’s finally been released after too many years in captivity! Contrast this with Grainger’s reflective “Twilight Years,” and the kickin' “Heart Shaped Rock,” and finally the heartbreaking “Roadside Cross.” The picking, harmonizing and songwriting contributions from the rest of the band are equally tasty. Dan Wetzel contributes a smooth guitar and mandolin, as well as well delivered lead vocals. Jeff Shippy (fiddle), Tim Darby (dobro) and Matt Gray (banjo) do a fine job supporting the group. Sam Samuels lays a solid foundation and plays a rock solid bass line throughout this CD.
If you are a die-hard fan of traditional bluegrass with straight ahead 3-chord rhythm and high lonesome harmonies, you may be disappointed. However, if you lean more to complex, contemporary variations of bluegrass with the traditional instruments, but also with sophisticated syncopation and counter-rhythms, and tight two and three part harmony, this is a group worth listening to.
With groups like True North, Kane’s River, Nickel Creek, and Alison Krauss and Union Station, the future of modern day bluegrass is in fine hands. — Bob Hall, NW Bluegrass
Cobalt Miles of Sky CD Review, Uptown Bluegrass [January 12, 2005]
One of the fun things in bluegrass is to go to a festival and receive CDs for airplay on “Uptown Bluegrass”… oftentimes some real jewels come along and are a delight to the ear. This is the case with “Cobalt Miles of Sky” by True North a west coast band from Oregon. The CD has 14 songs and 8 of them are band member’s own tunes. Their music is of high quality, with easy style on the vocals and instrumental work that is tasteful, sensitive and when needed, it drives right along. Lead singers Kristen Grainger and Dan Wetzel deliver on many of their own songs and the covers too. True North is a band to watch for, and is well presented by NW bluegrass CD producer Dale Adkins. Check out the last song on the CD… Rodney Crowell’s “Shame on the Moon”… sounding just fine with a bluegrass kick. — George McKnight, www.uptownbluegrass.com