"What's it been now? Almost 10 years?"

Dave Simonett laughed at my guesstimate for how long his string-picking, foot-stomping, beards-endorsing band Trampled by Turtles has been bouncing around Minnesota. It has actually only been half of that. Five years, in which time they've grown from the young whiz-kids of the Duluth music scene to the one of the best-drawing acts in the state.

"It feels like a lot longer," the singer/guitarist said, good-naturedly deflecting the error.

At least it sounds like it's been a lot longer on the Turtles' new CD, "Duluth." Man, have these guys quickly grown up.

Not only is "Duluth" by far the best of TBT's four albums -- their impressive five-year output is another reason I thought it's been longer -- it should stand out as solid proof that the burgeoning neo-bluegrass/hippies-with-stringed-instruments scene around the state is no passing trend. I would stack this record up to any disc by the better-known bluegrassy rock acts around the country right now, including String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band. But I would also push it on people who don't even like those bands.

"We've spent so much time playing together since we started, it's gotten a lot easier," Simonett admitted. "It's not hard work writing a song anymore."

That point is obvious as "Duluth" unfurls at the breakneck, steady-flowing pace that defines Turtles' live sets. Not all the tracks are hyper-picked, though. In fact, some of the record's best stuff is mellower tunes such as the six-minute centerpiece "Methodism in Middle America" and the poppy picker "The Darkness and the Light." Simonett said he wrote the latter track "after traveling around more, and realizing I might like it where I live as much as anywhere."

Naming the album after the city that birthed them, Simonett said, "was really just a way to celebrate the town. When we're on tour, we hear from a lot of people asking about Duluth. They know it has a cool little music and arts scene."

While Simonett and new fiddler Ryan Young (from Pert Near Sandstone) now call Minneapolis home, the rest of the band still lives at the northern end of I-35, and they continue to base a lot of their creativity there. "Duluth" was recorded due northwest of town in producer Rich Mattson's rural studio near Eveleth. The ex-Ol' Yeller frontman (now playing with the Tisdales) also produced TBT's last disc, "Trouble," which featured a more rocking alt-country sound and even drums on a few tracks -- a noble experiment, but part of "Duluth's" success is it brings the band back to the bluegrass/folk realm. The all-acoustic collection also includes three dazzling instrumentals (written by banjoist Dave Carroll or mandolin player Erik Berry). There's even a stirring version of the folk standard "Shenandoah," which is nothing like the one you sang back in elementary school.

Here's to the next five years.

Ali's new champion

Lucky us, Brother Ali wasn't just sitting around watching CNN on Election Night. The Minneapolis rapper laid down a pride-inflamed track that night called "Mr. President (You're the Man)," which has earned some national press among the many post-election reactionary stories. Rhyming over a sample of Marvin Gaye's "You're the Man" -- and acting as if he's talking to his son, Faheem -- Ali booms out such potent lines as, "This is our country and our chance to redeem it," and, "I can't believe it/ We're supposed to be divided by and scare tactics and greed/ Like the most a black kid could be is rappers and athletes or selling crack on the streets." The song is available for free via Rhymesayers.com or Ali's MySpace page.

CD parties

Boy/girl pop group Mighty Fairly has done fairly well since its 2006 debut, landing songs on MTV's "Real World" and lots of college radio stations. The quartet is back with another well-crafted and truthfully titled album, "Big Words and Power Chords, which it's promoting tonight at Bunkers (9 p.m., $7). Frontman Mischa Suemnig comes off like a less gravely and grave version of Mike Doughty, and his wry pop is sweetened all the more by bassist and co-vocalist Kellie Nitz in tracks like the punchy opener "Falling to Pieces" and the gushing but irresistible acoustic ditty "Live for Love."

StrangeLights, the less-acidic First Communion Afterparty offshoot led by Joe Werner (also of Bridge Club fame), makes good on its growing buzz with a strong four-song debut for Susstones, "Evius EP." Werner groans, purrs and howls like a Bauhaus-less Peter Murphy in the opener "Walking Shadows," and his guitarwork drones and echoes beautifully throughout, building to an explosive finale in "Planet Vesuvius." The band's release party is Saturday at the Kitty Cat Klub (10 p.m., $5). StrangeLights also plays the annual Susstones party next weekend at the Varsity.

Random mix

The most genius bit of marketing I've seen in quite some time in the local music scene, Heiruspecs worked out a deal with Pizza Luce to have a three-song sampler from its upcoming CD delivered with any pizzas ordered from either the Uptown or St. Paul locations. The deal lasts through Sunday, or at least until the 2,000 or so sampler CDs run out. Don't be surprised if a few more stoners than usual turn out for the "Heiruspecs" release party (Dec. 13, First Ave). ...

The Big Wu will follow up its Thanksgiving night show at the Cabooze with the return of its Wu Year's Eve gig on (duh) Dec. 31 at Trocaderos. Tickets are on sale now for $15, but the band is also giving out VIP tickets to anyone who donates an instrument or $90 to the music program at Anthony Middle School, which can be done via Schmitt Music stores. ...

With Jim (The Mad Ripple) Walsh's blessing, the acoustic cover band the Bottom 40 (get it?) is taking over the song-driven Friday night hootenannies at Java Jack's in south Minneapolis starting tonight (7 p.m., $5, kids free). ...

Having finally severed their ties with 2024 Records, the Hopefuls will come in just under the wire for releasing their long-awaited sophomore album in the year 2008. Their release party is Dec. 20 at First Ave. Glad tidings, indeed.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658