Review: City on a Hill – Mile 12

City on a Hill, Mile 12’s new album, is a showcase for their impressive talents and, more importantly, an expression of their remarkable cohesiveness; this is a band that is so comfortable working together that they respond to one another with uncanny intuitiveness. Eight of the ten tracks on the CD are originals; significantly, they are all credited to Mile 12 collectively rather than to individuals. Evan Murphy (guitar, lead vocals) explains, “What makes this band so collaborative is that everyone in the band can do something at a really high level. That’s the balance. We’re all challenging each other.”

The concentration of musical talent is impressive indeed. Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, one of the group’s founding members, is one of the best fiddlers around. BB Bowness’ banjo playing combines awesome technical skill with sophisticated musical knowledge. I recently revisited a video of the band’s HVBA concert in 2017 and was struck by the growth in her technique. David Benedict joined the group in 2016, and his mandolin adds a vital element to the band’s sound. (He also composed the instrumental track, “Rialto,” discussed below). Nate Sabat anchors the group on bass and also provides lead vocals on two tracks. Evan Murphy has the remainder of the vocals, in addition to playing guitar. The busy touring schedule (in addition to North America, the band has been to Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan) has helped all the performers to hone their skills and their ability to work smoothly together.

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“Barefoot In Jail”

Since their inception, Mile 12 has worked to strike a balance between honoring the traditions of bluegrass and expressing their own distinctive playing and songwriting. This album achieves that balance effectively. “Barefoot in Jail,” a hard-driving rocker about the aftermath of a drunken night out, is right at home with a host of bluegrass and country classics involving whisky, women, and honkytonks; both its melody and its story line had me thinking, “Rye whisky, rye whisky, I know you of old . . .” At the opposite extreme is the one instrumental piece, “Rialto,” described in the liner notes as “orchestrated chamber music.” In this complex work, mandolin, banjo, guitar and fiddle interweave seamlessly, highlighting each player’s exceptionally skilled technique. It’s stunningly beautiful, but bluegrass, it’s not.

On many of the tunes, there is a striking contrast between performance and lyrical content. The subjects are overwhelmingly dark: a once-glorious city in ruins (“City That Drowned”); a veteran suffering from PTSD (“Jericho”); an ex-convict unable to pick up the pieces of his life (“Innocent Again”); a man responding to a bad breakup with nightly drinking bouts (“Good Times Every Night.”) And yet, thanks to the band’s extraordinary musicianship, listening to the album is far from a depressing experience. A prime example is their take on Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” which leads off the CD. The original is a dirge-like account of lost souls “bleary eyed, under a keg of wine”; in Mile 12’s hands, the song becomes an upbeat bluegrass tune—a marked improvement, in my opinion.

If I had to single out one cut that best exemplifies the group’s best qualities, it would be “Innocent Again,” the number about the ex-convict finding that society won’t let him move on from his past. From Keith-Hynes’s swooping fiddle lead-in to the rapid-fire picking of BB Bowness and Benedict’s mandolin, the music belies the grimmer text. All of the players support Evan Murphy’s driving vocal, working as an organic whole. That’s what this band is all about.

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