FolkWorld Issue 40 11/2009
FolkWorld CD Reviews
Iron and Wine "Around the Well"
Label: Sub Pop Records; SPCD808; 2009; 90 min
The mellow sound of the majority of Iron and Wine’s songs relies heavily on fingerpicked or slide guitar and seemingly half-whispered vocals by lead singer Sam Beam. This tends to give the listener the feeling that Beam is crooning directly into your ear, or as if you were in a darkened room and someone was telling you a secretive and meaningful story. The vocal harmonies can sometimes seem obscured by too much throaty air, but the general effect, together with damped guitars and distant effects, is of something intriguing and delightful.
Iron and Wine’s folk-inspired album sometimes errs on the soft side of the musical spectrum, failing to move beyond the peaceful and meditative. But the songs with more of a beat combine a laid-back feeling with a motivated groove to great effect. And ultimately, Iron and Wine’s secretive world of harmonies on this album is enchanting.
Manfred Leuchter and Ian Melrose "Vis-à-vis"
Label: Acoustic Music Records; LC07103; 2008; 57 min
“Vis-à-vis” is a fascinating mix of world music resulting from the meeting of fingerstyle guitarist Ian Melrose and accordion player Manfred Leuchter. The listener will find on the album an arrangement of a traditional Irish tune, an original blues piece and a treatment of Bach’s 8th Goldberg Variation, as well as original reels and other tunes from various nations. The playful liner notes describe the origins of the pieces as well as Melrose and Leuchter’s relationship with them. Their often mischievous approach to the music is a telling detail for this duo; the fun they have together is very apparent in their recordings. Whether original or arrangement, guitar and accordion seem to blend together organically. When the two are playing together most closely, Leuchter’s accordion surfaces from silence to support Melrose’s precise guitar playing, which provides a fluid frame for the accordion. For those who like a potpourri of world music or just interesting melodies, harmonies and rhythms from all over the world, “Vis-à-vis” is a sterling example of musical collaboration.
Lawrence Blatt "Fibonacci’s Dream"
Label: LMB Music; 2008; 37 min
Lawrence Blatt "The Color of Sunshine"
Label: LMB Music; 2009
San Francisco guitarist Lawrence Blatt calls the original pieces on this album “eclectic modern mathematical compositions for the acoustic guitar”. In composing them, Blatt took much inspiration from the work of Leonardo Fibonacci, the 13th century Italian mathematician. In order to see the influence of Fibonacci in his compositions, Blatt invites the listener to “look for phrases that are repeated in a Fibonacci sequence of numbers, melodies that follow tonal intervals separated by Fibonacci numbers and verses increasing in length by the Golden Ratio”. In case the listener doesn’t have the necessary background, Blatt includes a short mathematical introduction in the liner notes.
The pieces are mainly mellow New Age guitar melodies that take inspiration from an existing tradition (i.e. Celtic) as many modern folk composers for the guitar do. This creates a challenge for the composer: he must create music that is able to stand completely alone, convincing the listener of its validity without a real genre to support it. For fans of soft New Age guitar, Blatt’s album will hit the spot.
“The Color of Sunshine”, Lawrence Blatt’s album immediately following 2008’s “Fibonacci’s Dream”, mentions producer William Ackerman three times, each time with the explanation “Grammy winner and founder of Windham Hill Records”. Those simply wishing to learn something about the guitarist or his music may be overwhelmed at the name dropping. The album also has a concept in the vein of Blatt’s previous album. This time around it is color and the inspirations colors can provide for composing music. The pieces, with names such as “Infrared: The Abyss”, “Mar Azul” and “Reach for the Rainbow”, are arranged in the order of the light spectrum.
The music continues in the same style as Blatt’s previous album, with evocative, often slow melodies for guitar and ukulele. Blatt is supported by a wide range of musicians, adding percussion, vocals, piano, violin and accordion to the mix, although Blatt’s guitar or ukulele is always in the foreground. Although I personally did not experience any colors while listening to the album, Blatt’s music is quite a colorful mix of styles and moods.
Label: Own Label; CM200801; 2008
German trio Celarda, consisting of Lisa Eberhardt (vocals, cello), Katharina Liborius (vocals, fiddle, whistles, flute) and Marco Schmidt (vocals, guitar, accordion and bodhran), take inspiration from Irish Traditional Music and attempt to create something new. The deep silken sound of the cello adds much to the individual sound of the group, although their arrangements don’t break any new ground. New ground or not, the solidity of their collaboration on the tunes and songs on this album is striking.
Alongside the Irish-inspired traditional tunes, the group’s treatment of songs draws attention. “Only Our Rivers” is accompanied with a Bossa Nova beat; “Follow On” stays relaxed but still manages a rollicking rhythm. Lovers of “Celtic” music with a twist of something new will certainly like Celarda.
Magic Brook "The Source"
Label: Melusine Records; 2008
Bay Area guitarist Magic Brook is devoted to exploring the guitar’s extended capabilities. His album “The Source” could be seen as an examination of the source of the guitar’s character and sound. Brook’s physical way of interacting with the guitar as well as his basis in jazz and funk make for an attention-getting, rhythmical style. Because the percussive use of his instrument may be mistaken for overdubbed percussion, the album’s liner notes make sure to state, “this recording has no overdubbed tracks. It was recorded ‘two hands, one guitar,’ direct to digital.”
Brook’s music makes an improvisational impression while retaining a sense of direction and motivation. This solo guitar album demonstrates his unique approach to the instrument and the strength of purpose and preparation required to present his music so well. This strong showing by an intriguing guitarist won’t fail to convince most listeners.
The Sarah Burnell Band "Return Ticket"
Label: SarahFiddleMusic; 2008
The Sarah Burnell Band, based around young Canadian fiddler Sarah Burnell, features a mix of “traditional Celtic music” played and accompanied with a wide range of instruments. Burnell, who won the Canadian Folk Music Award as "Young Performer of the Year" in 2006, is a fiddler and vocalist with a sure technique. The musicians in her band include a cellist, Celtic harpist and pianist.
“Return Ticket” is a collection of lively arrangements of Newfoundland, Cape Breton, Galician and Scottish jigs, reels and polkas, among others. As in many “Celtic” bands, influences from around the world are also involved, as with “Les reels tziganes”, inspired by Gypsy-Jazz. This is a solid album with a rousing attitude to folk and “Celtic” music.
Newfound Road "Same Old Place"
Label: Rounder; 001166106092
Bluegrass or newgrass? It’s hard to tell with a band that can do so many new things with an existing genre and who are still devoted to the traditional sound of bluegrass. Polished group Newfound Road delivers tasty bluegrass with an indefinable hint of new directions. Bluegrass purists won’t be disappointed while the four fellows in Newfound Road make sure to give modern listeners a well-rounded listening experience. This is the sort of band that may make sure the good old sound of bluegrass doesn’t get lost in the next centuries of music history.
The Molenes "Songs of Sin and Redemption"
Label: Own Label; 2008
If there was sin involved in the making of this album, then it was no musical sin. The Molenes, based around singer and guitarist Dave Hunter, give the listener their second album, full of original songs that have the feel of dust and wind. The at times almost sinister sound of the songs brings to mind lonesome plains and open sky. That lonely sound is perhaps best in “Grey Haze”, an evocative song of memories and distant places. “Trouble in the Corn” gives a beat to the wide-open sound and pulls the listener along the way through the rows of corn, bewildered and dizzy. The Molenes’ gritty songs will satisfy lovers of rockabilly and country with a touch of independent spirit.
Railroad Earth "Amen Corner"
Label: SCI Fidelity Records; 2008
The quiet beginning to the title track of “Amen Corner” misleads with its sense of a small-time singer-songwriter playing guitar at the local open mic night. Then the band kicks in and the listener hears the power and force of the band that is operating on this album. This band is anything but small-time; their sound could fill stadiums. Their straight-ahead original songs conform to the general rock and country schematic, with some flavors from bluegrass and jazz. Any pigeon-holing according to category must be qualified by a description of the pure joy the band seems to have in playing music, of any genre.
The songs on “Amen Corner” are full of energy and instrumental skill. Lonesome vocals give the songs their edge. The relaxation present in the band’s playing never comes across as laziness, just a perfectly balanced band dynamic and love of music. This album will appeal to any lover of tight, perfected folk rock.
Vince Bell "One Man’s Music"
Label: Own Label; 2009
Bell’s largely easygoing original songs take much of their character from his voice, raspy and at times wavery. The soft accompaniment of his guitar is not usually rhythmically surprising, and the somewhat pedestrian arrangements don’t always provide enough variation. The addition of piano to some tracks doesn’t alleviate the problem. Bell’s original songs keep much of the same relaxed mood throughout “One Man’s Music”, propelled by his wailing voice. For fans of New Age and soft rock, this album will be just the thing for a quiet evening at home.
Patrick Molard "The Waking of the Bridegroom"
Label: Macmeanmna; SKYECD47; 2008
Breton piper Molard presents here the Piobaireachd style of bagpipes, to which he has devoted much of his life. The solemnity and import of the bagpipes is hard to match, and piper Molard gives a masterful performance on this album of traditional Breton tunes.
Dailey and Vincent "Brothers from Different Mothers"
Label: Rounder; 011661061729
Dailey and Vincent must have the feeling they are somehow related, because they can make music and harmonize so well together. That must be why they named this album “Brothers from Different Mothers”, and the listener won’t be wondering why after hearing their vocal harmony. This album of straight-up bluegrass songs will delight any fan of tight harmonizing and straight-up bluegrass music.
Jimi McRae and Sam Okoo "Scottish Pipes and African Drums"
Label: McRae Music; 2009
This somewhat unlikely mix (although the djembe is sometimes used in more modern interpretations of “Celtic” music) often fails to achieve a satisfactory blend. The insistent drone of the bagpipes shapes the character of the album and it seems a shame that the drumming can’t have a more featured role. The bagpipes and African drumming, in a sense two solo pursuits, seem to miss out on really engaging with each other. Still, this album will be a treat for lovers of bagpipes, African drumming or unlikely friendships.
Ali Eskandarian "Nothing to Say"
Label: Wildflower Records; WFL1321; 2008
Eskandarian’s rock and pop influenced songs often deal with political themes, as in the songs “Government Meat” and “Johnny Goes to War”. The album’s title is misleading – Eskandarian does have something to say. His singing voice is insistent, shaping each word with relish and emphasis. Loneliness and the desire to get something across are things that come to mind when listening to Eskandarian’s songs. This doesn’t mean his songs don’t know how to rock; “Waking Up Is Hard To Do” gives a solid beat to a song that proclaims “We need to stand up for something”. Eskandarian’s album will have lovers of well-written songs standing up.
Label: Own Label; 2007
This short album by Irish-Scandinavian band Silta starts out with an enchanting melody and perfectly tailored vocals. The delicate but not tentative singing in the song “Ein Sael Kyss” by Robert Burns is perfectly accompanied by guitar and accordion. The gradual playing of harmony lines by the violin is nothing new to the accompaniment of traditional songs, but here it works as if the band had invented the art of arranging. This band’s work is not to be missed.
Glasgow Gaelic Musical Association "The Silver Way"
Label: Macmeanmna; SKYECD48; 2008
The Glasgow Gaelic Musical Association’s collection of choral arrangements by long-time conductor Kenneth Thomson includes rousing melodies as well as more meditative arrangements of Gaelic songs. The liner notes include all song texts in English. The rhythms of the Gaelic words are very evocative, perhaps more so for those of us who don’t speak the language. In any case, this album is a wonderful example of heartfelt choral folklore.
Four Men and a Dog "Wallop the Spot"
Label: Own Label; HOOK005; 2007
This very mixed album from Irish group Four Men and a Dog includes traditional Irish tunes, impeccably played, and original songs in swing, rock, latin and other styles. The detail given in the liner notes to the Irish tunes betray the band’s devotion to their traditional music, though they have a great deal of fun with the other styles as well. Very good arrangements and near-perfect instrumental mastery make this album work, even if you aren’t convinced by the outlandish mix of styles.
Denis Carey "Moving On"
Label: Denis Carey Music; FL08-013; 2008
Carey’s original compositions are firmly rooted in the traditions of his native Ireland. Performed by well-known Irish musicians, most of the all-instrumental tunes will appeal to fans of Irish Traditional Music. Denis Carey’s mastery of composition is present in every piece on the album, from the ragtime-inspired “Rag Order” to the air “Moving On”.
Red Shamrock "Desert Snow"
Label: Own Label; ZYT4918; 2008
“Celtic music from Switzerland” – the band’s description of itself is quite apt. As with many bands, the label “Celtic” means a modern take on music from the British Isles. And the title track does succeed in taking the listener into a well-constructed world of celtic-influenced melodies. Using the traditional array of fiddle, accordion, flute and bodhran as well as more modern instruments like electric bass, djembe and cajon, the band mixes traditional and modern sounds for the listener.
The band’s name is also a clue to their goals: they seem set on taking “Celtic” music in new directions, conceivably, if the album’s name is telling, into dry expanses where snow covers the sand. But can a band really provide a new existence for traditional Irish, Scottish and English music while preserving its essence? Though Red Shamrock’s music is confident and assured, it seems uncertain where their music is leading.
Paul and Margie "20 Best Folk Songs of America"
Label: Arc Music; LC05111; 2009
This well-mixed and -recorded album promises a lot: the twenty best folk songs of America. Though it is full of polish, the arrangements and performances often seem machine-like. The accompaniment is often very static, reminding the listener of drum machines and computer-engineered backing. The songs work best with straight-ahead acoustic guitar, as on “House of the Rising Sun”. Margie’s voice is often too sugary sweet and lacking conviction or any real connection with the songs, as on “If I Had a Hammer”. Still, the album presents a pleasant collection of American folk songs.
© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 11/2009
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