Everyone who grew up in a small town knows the feeling a countryside road trip can conjure, and that’s exactly what Red Cedar Review’s new LP does for its listeners. Images of heavily wooded areas with deer crossing signs, farmers markets on the side of the road, and sprawling crop fields all come to mind when taking in the band’s premier album, The Highway. Red Cedar Review uses its bluegrass instrumentation and twangy folk sound to produce an album that sounds like it was composed by a road-weary traveling band.
Red Cedar Review is comprised of music scene vets Brad Edwardson (also of the Flat Foot Floozies, formerly of the Royal Tinfoil) and Aaron Firetag, a name instantly recognizable to a large portion of the music-loving community from the past decade, at least. The band’s origin comes from founder, guitarist, and vocalist Edwardson switching up instruments in order to snag more gigs. “For a long time I was an upright bass player in town, and when I started working on finger-style guitar stuff, and taking guitar playing more seriously, this project came out of that,” says Edwardson.
Edwardson had written songs for years, and because of their regular performing schedule, Red Cedar Review’s birth was very gradual. “We were playing a lot with me on upright bass, Mackie [Boles] on guitar, [Aaron] Firetag on mandolin, and we called that band Cattle in the Cane,” says Edwardson. “We were doing that a lot from 2012, 2013. And then, in 2014, I was playing more guitar.” Before he knew it, Edwardson was primarily a guitarist, eventually naming his project Red Cedar Review.
The guitar cuts through the sharpest for most of The Highway. Even as it’s used as a rhythm instrument, Red Cedar Review puts it to the forefront on tracks like slow country-blues-er “Broken Heart Home,” or the plucky outlaw tune “Zero to Sixty.” Both songs use the guitar as an accompaniment to vocals, in a Robert Johnson or Blind Willie McTell sort of way. The singing isn’t too far off, either, as Edwardson opts to vocalize in a talking blues sense.
The majority of the rhythms are handled with the six-string, though another asset of The Highway is the mandolin. Firetag employs the mandolin as a dazzling lead instrument. Edwardson and Firetag’s interplay between the two chordophones shines on songs like the eponymous track and instrumental “Big Sciota.” The guitar lays down the crux of the song in a Merle Travis-inspired intro. The mandolin expands on it with a keen lead and a lightning-fast solo. A country-western fiddle and bass push the sound an extra step or two, showing off Edwardson’s skills as a composer and a musician.
Storytelling is one of the most important facets of The Highway, finding humor in its outlaw songs and adventure in its travelling songs. “Soon I’ll be out of here at last/ I’ll be hopping trains, and hitching rides/ Spent my nights in smokey dives/ I’ll be living life so damn fast/ They can’t build a wall strong enough to keep me in,” Edwardson sings on “Hellhound.”
“Jailbird” finds laughs in the criminal persona the band adopts. “I’ve been arrested for possession of just about everything/ From weapons to wild animals, I’ve got breaking and entering/ Burglary, disorderly, battery, trespassing/ These are all just cases of mistaken identity,” Edwardson sings.
Some songs written prior to Red Cedar Review’s existence were refurbished for the album. There’s a palpable difference between some of these songs and the rest of the album. Both “Wind” and “Vestapool/Drinks,” songs Edwardson wrote before the band, have a different sense of melody and lyricism. There’s less storytelling, but more intricate messages behind their lyrical content, and their melodies don’t stick as closely to blues and folk archetypes. “A lot of the songs come from different times,” says Edwardson. “There are a couple songs I wrote back in 2012, 2013, and some of them I wrote last year.”
While the album features violins, drums, bass, and other bluegrass instruments, Edwardson and Firetag often play Review shows as a duo. But, when the conditions are right, they occasionally bring out other members to thicken up the sound. “We do a quartet at Bar Mash every other Thursday,” says Edwardson. “Sometimes we just can’t afford to have a full band.” With larger shows, like this weekend’s, they bring onstage as many folks as possible.