The Whistles and the Bells, "Modern Plagues" (New West)
This is the sound of freedom.
The Whistles and the Bells is Bryan Simpson, former mandolinist in the bluegrass band Cadillac Sky — a nice gig, but one with creative constraints.
"Modern Plagues" is Simpson's second solo album, and he's bursting with ideas beyond the confines of an acoustic combo. The elimination of genre limitations allows him to explore every color of the musical rainbow, with exhilarating results.
Simpson's enormous toolbox includes tuba and harp, big drums and a flute solo, hip-hop, klezmer, topical lyrics and wordless "la-la-la's." An EDM groove propels "Zombie Heartz," while a fat bass steers "Year of the Freak Out" toward classic R&B. A synthesizer echoes Simpson's vocal on "Good Drugs," and "Small Time Criminals" connects the French Quarter with Appalachia.
These aren't just random whistles and bells. Hooks abound, tying the cornucopia of noise together, and Simpson's social commentary provides further glue. "In Google we trust," he notes on "Zombie Heartz," adding: "We keep sawing off the limb we're sitting on."
Among those assisting are former Cadillac Sky bandmate Matt Menefee and the Raconteurs' Brendan Benson, who shares composing credit with Simpson on three of the 11 songs.
The whole thing runs a snappy 36 minutes. "You're not even listening," Simpson sings in the first verse, but that's doubtful. His la-la-la land makes for an album to turn up, not tune out.