Famously forming at a music camp in Alaska, the band really came into the public consciousness just prior to the release of the band's last album, "Doors and Windows." Seeing them live at that time was infectious -- all smiles, this seemed like a group of friends out on a lark and having a great time. I saw them at Merlefest in 2009, and during their set they said they came up with a song, literally, while driving to North Carolina from Alaska and wanted to try it out.
The song was "Good in the Kitchen" and it sparkled, the band all the while looking like kids who had just discovered a new favorite toy. They seemed to be having as much fun as the audience, perhaps a bit genuinely surprised at all the attention they were getting.
And they were also making fantastic music together. Their visitation to the Carter standard "Single Girl" was breathtaking, with an arrangement that allowed all of the heartbreak and regret of the song to come forward. I loved it, lots of people loved it. Odessa Jorgensen's vocals were layered and complex; the twin fiddle work was brilliantly tight and Mike Mickelson's guitar work inspired.
But things change, and with success come other pressures. Spending so much time in a van so far from home can't be easy, at least not all the time. And whether it was those pressures, or others, the changes to the band since the last release to this have been profound. "American Story" is the debut of the new set, and in the promo material surrounding the release, the members can't keep from calling it the "new" Bearfoot. The only members that remain are Angela Oudean, a wonderful fiddle player and harmony vocalist, and Jason Norris on mandolin. Both great musicians in their own right, but neither has fronted the band, and arguably neither was responsible for its emotional core. That remains true in the new line up as well. That Oudean and Norris both appear in the background of the promo photos on the band website is, well, appropriate.
So, not surprisingly, the character of the band has changed as well. If the earlier line up was a bunch of kids having a great time together, this line up means business in its most literal sense. The players on "American Story" are exceptionally strong, very tight, and highly experienced. Nora Jane Struthers, now the voice of Bearfoot, has had a career of her own before this, and it's her persona that appears throughout this album, both in the writing and the delivery. Where it works, it really works, as is the case with "Feel Free" (co-written by Tim O'Brien) and "Eyes Cast Down" (co-written by Claire Lynch).
The one puzzler is "When You're Away" a song about a housewife, apron and everything, waiting for her husband to come home from work, all the while washing his socks and pressing his pants. (Does anyone actually press pants these days? And who wears an apron anymore?) It comes off as an attempt to build on the success of "Good in the Kitchen," but misses the mark. Rather than sexy, it feels like June Cleaver flirting with Ward, and therefore is an especially hard sell for a band that is so young, so free, and so, well, single.
But that's the only dud on an otherwise very solid release. Guitar player Todd Grebe takes the lead on two tracks to very good effect, including "Mr. Moonshine" a song that he penned. There's also a lot of fun to be had here too, in songs such as "Come Get Your Lonesome," which is brilliantly written and very funny, as well as the a-cappella "Billy."
And, at the end of the day, it's not the Bearfoot we knew. We'll miss Odessa Jorgensen's stunningly layered vocals, as well as the spirit of the group she fronted. But, all things change I suppose, and "American Story" displays a good unit that in time might grow together a bit more and iron out the very few inconsistencies on this disc. There's certainly enough here to hope that this line up sticks together at least for another release or two.