Mules and Men are a four-piece band from Dublin who advertise themselves as playing progressive bluegrass. Unfortunately, this does not mean concept albums about tortured medieval wizards performed by cape clad musicians on ice. This reviewer would definitely pay to see such a bluegrass show. Rather it means a willingness to occasionally push at the genre’s boundaries.
There is a stepping outside the bluegrass confines on a few of the tracks on this album. `Caisie’s Light’ has a gentler pace and folky fingerstyle guitar. `Disco’ starts with an unfaltering guitar rhythm that commands your head to bob and foot to tap. Flamenco-esque flourishes appear, the other instruments arrive, and it morphs into an electric guitar shuffle beat riff reminiscent of many indie guitar bands of the `90s. This section is only a minute and half long, but these are sounds rarely heard on the standard bluegrass record.
However, the core of the album lies with bluegrass’s bright rattling banjo, thumping thrumming basslines and quicksilver playing. `Roscommon County Line’, `Chilly Hollow’, `Cork’ and `John Keavney’ all exhibit this and showcase the fine playing of the band. You can’t listen to these without having your spirits raised.
The band clearly delight in the versatility and expression they can provide from their instruments. The singing is less confident; delivery is sometimes hesitant, and the harmonies don’t always lie easily. The singing is sat back in the mix and it’s often not easy to hear the lyrics. `Rust’ is an exception with Lily Sheehan’s paced and confident delivery and is lovely.
Still, with playing of this order it does not matter. In the final track `Continental Mexicali Drift’, the band’s madly catchy riffs take on the elusive quality of singing. It’s twice as long as the other pieces on the album but doesn’t feel like that.
An album from this genre is almost a calling card for the live show. Ideally, it should communicate adrenaline, musicianship and beats that insist your body should move. It should produced an unwilled smile and a determination to see the band play live. This album delivers on all of those and makes you ache once again for the bond of live music. Now, please excuse me. I must go tune my air banjo.