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Joy Kills Sorrow, on cutting edge of acoustic

The members of Joy Kills Sorrow use classic bluegrass instrumentation and regularly play bluegrass festivals, but don't consider themselves to be a bluegrass band. The members of Joy Kills Sorrow use classic bluegrass instrumentation and regularly play bluegrass festivals, but don't consider themselves to be a bluegrass band. (Chona Kasinger)
By Stuart Munro
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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Rising Boston band Joy Kills Sorrow takes its name from a piece of bluegrass lineage: the call letters of radio station WJKS, which was home to the Monroe Brothers’ show in the 1930s. And Joy Kills Sorrow uses classic bluegrass instrumentation - acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, upright bass - and regularly plays bluegrass festivals.

But Joy Kills Sorrow does not consider itself to be a bluegrass band, but rather a “modern American string band.’’ Like a number of like-minded groups (including their compadres in Crooked Still), they’re playing a new sort of acoustic music that, in their case, finds its wellspring in an unexpected source.

“I guess the shortest way I’ve found to put it is that we play music that is very influenced by modern indie rock and indie pop music, but on acoustic instruments,’’ says singer Emma Beaton, speaking from the band’s van en route to a show in Victoria, British Columbia (which happens to be only a few hours from her Vancouver Island hometown). “We all have roots in acoustic bluegrass and folk music, but the kind of songwriting that we’re doing is definitely more in an indie-rock vein.’’

That vein shows up in the textures and layers of the band’s songs, particularly in the lyrics and the emphasis on dynamics.

“The new indie rock - Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes - uses a lot of textural things,’’ Beaton says. “When we’re working a song up, we look at where we want the climaxes and drops to be, at the whole map of the song. For us, that’s a big part of the journey of listening to a song.’’

Beaton does see traditional bluegrass as an influence in certain respects, most prominently in the solo sections of their songs (and, one might add, the instrumental virtuosity behind those solos). “We really try and remember to keep featuring solo sections because that is a big part of what we do that separates us from a lot of other bands that are doing indie-rock stuff, like Mumford & Sons.’’

Beaton also offers the caveat that while Joy Kills Sorrow’s songwriting isn’t much influenced by bluegrass, the repertoire varies; a couple of the songs on the band’s 2010 release, “Darkness Sure Becomes This City,’’ did lean in that direction. And the opening track on the group’s new album, “This Unknown Science’’ (which will be released on Tuesday), finds guitar player Matt Arcara “doing G runs [a classic bluegrass lick] through the entire song. So that’s a bit of bluegrassism that peeks out.’’

Be that as it may, there are fewer of those moments on the new record. Does Beaton view its sound as different than that of its predecessor, and is it closer to realizing the band’s conception of what it wants to sound like?

“Definitely. When we made ‘Darkness. . .,’ we had only had that lineup together for a few months. Not only did we start writing together, but also [mandolin player] Jake Jolliff’s style, now that we’ve been playing together for a lot longer, has played a big part in the development of our sound.’’ (The quintet is fleshed out by Bridget Kearney on bass and Wesley Corbett on banjo.)

Another difference is the choice of producers for this new record.

“We chose to go with a rock producer, Sam Kassirer [who’s particularly known for his work with Josh Ritter]. He played a huge part in the sound of ‘This Unknown Science,’ not only tonally - you can tell that there’s a lot of different textures that we use - but in helping us tweak a number of our arrangements.”

That experience helped to give the new album its name, according to Beaton.

“We chose to go with a much different style of production with this record, and when we went into the studio, we didn’t necessarily know what we would come out with,’’ she says. “So, I guess the title pertains to that. It was sort of an unknown.’’

Stuart Munro can be reached at


At Club Passim, Oct. 1 at 7 and 10 p.m. Tickets: $15. 617-492-7679.