Ron Block,
Faraway Land
(Rounder, 2001)

After playing and singing with Alison Krauss and Union Station, lo, these many years, Ron Block has released his first solo album. It's primarily contemporary bluegrass gospel made up of all original compositions by Block. He's joined by a solid group of bluegrass friends, including Barry Bales, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Adam Steffey and Dan Tyminski, as well as guests like Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss and many more.

With that lineup, I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the album. The songs seem heartfelt and sincere, and their main strength is their lyrics, but there's a wearisome sense of sameness to many of the songs, and Block's somewhat reedy tenor doesn't seem strong enough to sustain an entire 12-track CD.

There are some highlights: Block's voice sounds fine on "He's Holding On to Me," and Stuart Duncan's fiddle solo in the same song is wonderful. The twin fiddles in the title track are a delight, and "Higher Than Man" builds nicely, using a fun and quirky irregular rhythm. "In the Morning Light" is a breath of fresh air with its major-key, up-tempo jollity, and Block's vocal sounds just fine here. "Set Your Children Free" gets into a funky, bluesy bag, with a rich and almost menacing undercurrent. "Donal's Lullaby" is simple and beautiful, and boasts some great dobro work by Jerry Douglas. However, Block's voice seems at the top of its range here, and sounds strained. There's a nice instrumental in "In Memory of Steve," with some interesting chord changes and superb solo guitar work by Block.

But Block's compositional bag of tricks often repeats itself. He uses repeated descending minor thirds to distraction, and I stopped counting after the first four tracks. Melodies are often repetitive, as in "Searching," which seems to be one dropped minor third after another. The majority of the tracks are in a minor key, as though Block seems to feel that minor keys somehow imply profundity. Often, variety can be more important to a project. The whole thing is almost too earnest in its desire to be taken seriously. Block's guitar chops are impressive and his lyrics are well-crafted, but the level of musical composition lags too far behind the words. Still, I'll be looking forward to his next project.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 19 January 2002

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