Railroad Earth: Railroad Earth (One Haven) 

Railroad Earth's affinity for creative, high-energy acoustic improvisation is the group's claim to fame. But on this album, they present nine different tunes as individually stylized song portraits, with none sounding anything like the others.

This album also marks the beginning of RR's experimentation with electric guitars in the studio. There are times when Andy Goessling's touch is light and jaunty, as it is on "Long Walk Home." Meanwhile, the playing is uncharacteristically heavy and dark, but also sinfully cool, on "Black Elk Speaks."

At the center of it all are the vocals and songwriting of Todd Sheaffer. His voice continues to be the signature sound for the group, while his songs here seem more finely crafted and complex. "Too Much Information" has almost a bluegrass-reggae feel to it (if there is such a thing), while he takes a risk with "Day in the Sand," a beautiful ballad—both plaintive and upbeat—with just voice and guitar. And his lyrics and vocals on "On the Banks," with its phrasing and emotion, evoke memories of Jerry Garcia.

True to the band's nature, there is also mandolin player John Skehan's 11-minute (and String Cheese Incident-influenced) instrumental "Spring-Heeled Jack." But as good and expansive as it is, it's not really what this CD is about: strong songs and tight ensemble-playing backed with a great vibe.

More by Jim Lipson

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