The fourth album from Montana’s modern bluegrass quintet Laney and the Bird Dogs is about survival and optimism.
Since forming in 2013 in Bozeman, Montana’s Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs have toured extensively in the West and Northwestern U.S. and recorded four studio and live albums, putting to good use their collective three decades’ and multiple genres of experience. Their latest album, partly financed by their fans via Kickstarter, is more of their signature harmony-filled, masterfully played, Americana-influenced, contemporary bluegrass, focused on survival, hope, and personal strength. The post-apocalyptic title suggests a fire, crash, or other disaster that one can see or make it through intact.
The band consists of Lena (Laney) Schiffer on guitar and vocals; Josh Moore on guitar and vocals; Brian Kassay on fiddle, harmonica, mandolin and vocals; Matt Demarais on banjo and vocals; and Ethan Demarais on bass. Until recently they had operated as something of a cottage industry, managing themselves, doing their own booking, and designing and creating their own merchandise — all while playing up to 150 shows a year.
‘Through the Smoke’ is no historical set piece of traditional bluegrass. There are plenty of deliberate pop and rock influences here, as well as folky Americana. Moore’s, Kassay’s, and Demarais’ harmonies with and without Schiffer’s are a perfect combination. Schiffer’s voice is impressively versatile and sometimes veers toward Linda Ronstadt or Emmylou Harris territory (‘Reeling,’ ‘Count on You’), never restricted to high lonesome harmonies. It is put to rather eerie effect on the unsettling ‘Black Crow.’
Schiffer explained to Glide Magazine that the opening track ‘Hi Line’ was about an emotional and philosophical reverie experienced while driving the long highway that parallels the Montana-Canada border. She said, “The concept for the song was born when I was driving this stretch of road and feeling like time was moving extremely slow as I drove alongside a train. The big open sky in Montana leaves space for deep reflection, and I was missing my partner who I was in a long-distance relationship with. ‘Hi-Line’ is a love song laced with feelings of being lonesome but also knowing that things will all come together as long as you keep moving in the right direction.”
‘Bootleg’ is a hat tip to willful self-destructiveness and Tennessee bootleg liquor (the only kind of whiskey strong enough), with fiery banjo and fiddle playing from Demarais and Kassay. ‘Burn It Down’ starts out as a bittersweet Americana song about the evergreen theme of burning down one’s hometown and past and then delightfully speeds up into an all-out bluegrass jam. Personal liberation from religion is celebrated on the energetic and defiant ‘Ball and Chain’: “Your ball and chain can’t confine me / Throw your good book away. / Your commandments don’t define me / I’m the one who got away.”
Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs have successfully blended their own hybrid of Americana, and ‘Through the Smoke’ further expands their extensive repertoire with a collection of heartfelt, boozy, reflective, and barnstorming songs.