At first glance a full line up of boys in plaid and waistcoats strumming away at a slew of string instruments just might incline you towards dismissing the group as yet another Mumford & Sons runner-up. And while I’d hesitate on calling a hard rule on that assumption either way, I’d definitely suggest you ignore that urge for The Unseen Strangers.
Founded in the heart of jig country out east, the quartet of Adam Shier, James McEleney, Matt Elwood and Mike Mezzatesta now call Toronto home—even if their biggest fan base is actually south of there. As it is, they’re still making a name for themselves in Canada, and slowly turning listeners onto their experimental take on classic bluegrass sounds.
There’s a certain jazz flair on their latest, Stranger Places, as “Ice Jam” opens the nine-song collection with a rousing, nearly-instrumental dance through just some of the genres the band likes to play with. The string picking is impressive from the start, melodic and rapid-paced, and throughout the songs Matt Elwood makes quite the show of how quickly he can thrum away at his banjo.
“Wicked Lover” and “Old City Jail” take on traditional bluegrass themes, but The Unseen Strangers seem to take as much pleasure in deviating away from those as they do playing them up—a taste of the newgrass they’ve been dubbed the ambassadors of. But “Buster” churns out a more classic jig, the notes hopping like the steps to that rapid dance and a fiddle chirping in for the interlude.
In fact, that preference for “innovation over convention” just might be what differentiates The Unseen Strangers from all the other acts lining up to strum their way to success. At their most creative, the music is nearly irresistible, leaving you wondering what’s next and always coming through with a new turn to relish. Still, the odd staid number that rings truer to convention makes its way in, leaving you thirsting for something like “New Railroad Blues” to storm in and pick things up again.
There’s something to the urge to take classics and spin them into newer music to see what happens (just look at BadBadNotGood) and it’s refreshing to hear folk and bluegrass get their turn. The music’s as beautiful as ever, but with The Unseen Strangers it feels like something new to be found.
Top Tracks: “Ice Jam”; “Buster”
Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)