Acoustic quintet Della Mae wraps a big ol' bear hug around tradition on This World Oft Can Be, while managing not to loosen their grip on a fiercely modern identity.
The band's deft touch at infusing bluegrass with contemporary singer/songwriter sensibilities shows immediately on the first track, Letter From Down the Road/And Other Things – a fresh spin on the traditional song previously recorded by Laura Boosinger.
This World Oft Can Be spans an array of styles and sounds. The hard-driving Empire tells the story of a mining town turned ghost town. The swelling ballad Paper Prince details a lingering loneliness, Turtle Dove delivers a dose of toe-tapping whimsy and the delicate Like Bones celebrates a quiet moment between lovers just before the sun rises.
Della Mae's original songwriting, lilting harmonies and razor-sharp instrumentation puts This World Oft Can Be in a rare position to appeal equally to earnest bluegrass fans and wider cross-genre audiences.
Founder Kimber Ludiker, a two-time Grand National Fiddle Champion, handpicked mandolin player Jenni Lyn Gardner, guitarist Courtney Hartman, singer Celia Woodsmith and bassist Shelby Means for the Boston-based Della Mae lineup. Gardner contributes gospel-tinged lead vocals on a cover of Sarah Siskind's Pine Tree and Means steps elegantly to the front on Some Roads Lead On, written by Bill McKay.
But Woodsmith provides the band's signature sound with a voice effortlessly shifting between gritty, sensual, folksy and powerful. Her breathy urgency lifts Heaven's Gate and she breaks into a near-rap in parts of the rhythmic title track.
This World Oft Can Be, released Tuesday, is at its best when Woodsmith's voice blends seamlessly with Ludiker's fiddle and Gardner's Mandolin, such as the aching breakup song Ain't No Ash Will Burn, written by Walt Aldridge. Because much of the album was recorded live, with only minimal overdubbing of vocal harmonies and solos, it retains an authenticity not far removed from a live performance.
This World Oft Can Be is Della Mae's first album on the Rounder Records label, following their self-released 2011 debut I Built This Heart. Della Mae is scheduled to perform in the Riverhawk Music Festival in Brooksville on Nov. 9 and on the Mountain Song at Sea bluegrass cruise, which departs out of Miami, early next year.