Leveraging her acclaimed Grammy-nominated 2016 Weighted Mind, building off her bluegrass roots and stunning vocal range and tone, Sierra Hull forges new ground on 25 Trips with a stellar cast of musicians. This is a hard one to categorize but it doesn’t matter. Hull’s pure, angelic vocals mixed with superior musicianship and solid songwriting make this a riveting listen. The album is co-produced by Hull and producer/engineer Shani Gandhi (The Mountain Goats, Sara Watkins, Dwight Yoakam). Instead of the relatively sparse backing used in the predecessor, this one is intricately arranged with a mix of acoustic and electric instruments as well as percussion, marking the first time she has used the two latter elements. This lends not only to some appealing layers but also to plenty of improvisational solos, keeping flowing energy in almost every track.
Players include the core unit of Hull on mandolin and vocals, Mike Seal (guitar), Ethan Jodziewicz (bass), Alex Hargreaves (violin) and Christian Sedelmeyer (fiddle). But they don’t have to do all the heavy lifting by any means, as a who’s who of roots musicians join them including bassist Viktor Krauss, guitarist Bryan Sutton, multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan and steel guitarist Paul Franklin. Of course, Hull’s husband, multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses is aboard along with Molly Tuttle, Ron Block, Mindy Smith, Ronnie Bowman, Katie Pruitt and Angel Snow.
They begin with “Beautifully Out of Place” with just Hull’s mandolin and vocal before other instruments join in. The tune weaves in and out of several changes, indicating that this music may at times sound simple but will turn unpredictable quickly as it does here with rapid-fire mandolin and fiddle solos. “Middle of the Woods” features sparkling mandolin, some interplay with piano and percussion. These set the stage for the fiddle/banjo-driven “How Long,” a rousing track, replete with harmonies, that’s instantly memorable for both the chorus and the lightning-fast solos and interplay on the instrumental break.
The title track is a complex tune, full of twists and turns, displaying the breadth of her vocal range and relatively spare backing compared to others. The musicians shine so brightly that it’s easy to lose focus on the lyrics. A couple of songs really stand out there too. On ”Ceiling to the Floor,” co-written with Kai Welch, she sings tenderly with acute phrasing in metaphorical terms about her fear of heights. It features the legendary Franklin on pedal steel. She drifts from memory to real-life reflection, addressing both love and courage. While it’s clearly one of the most poignant tracks, the closer “Father Time” rivals it. She has a choir behind her as she sings with a heavy heart.
Other standouts include “Everybody’s Talking” where her emotive vocals center on the frustration of finding some clarity amidst the chaos of the outside world and “Escape,” written with Angel Snow, that has a mesmerizing mix of percussion, electric-mandolin tones and plainspoken poetic lyrics that float over the ethereal, restrained ambiance. “Poison” with its defiant cry of “you are poison to me” features some of the most inspired string work in an album full of many of them.
Keep in mind Hull is a two-time IBMA winner on mandolin, the first woman to ever win the award after multiple years of nominations. You hear plenty of her great work here but don’t kiss this off as a bluegrass album because it is far more ranging. Hull says, “One of the things I most enjoyed … was getting to show the wide variety of music I love…..What really matters to me is trusting myself to be who I am, and just putting my voice and my heart out there in the most sincere way I can.” Wow! She’s done all of that and more. This is highly recommended listening well beyond just the bluegrass aficionados.