Album Review: Ashokan Songlab, ‘Vol. 1 – Resilience’

Sparkling guitars notes drums, keys, and glockenspiel and vocals ripple down “Ponds and Streams,” mimicking the shimmering surface of a pond in the woods and the tumbling, frolicking waters of a stream flowing into the pond. The song ebbs and flows into eddies of sound that spiral into freshets of beauty that wash over us; there’s a translucent quality to the song that conveys the purity of a fresh mountain stream and the life that teems in and around it.

“Ponds and Streams” is one of six songs on the new EP, Vol1. 1 – Resilience by Ashokan Songlab, which grew out of a handful of homeschooled students collaborating with Mike + Ruthy of The Mammals, who produced the EP, at the Ashokan Center’s open-air pavilion last fall. Released on Earth Day, the EP celebrates the beauty and wonder of the natural world, as well as reminding us of its fragility and the efforts we need to make to take care of it.

As Mike + Ruthy explain, “The Ashokan Center is a 385-acre nonprofit in Olivebridge, NY, with the mission to teach, inspire, and build community through shared experiences in nature, history, music, and art. In 2020 as the pandemic had stopped nearly all on-site activities, a small team of Ashokan staff were building a series of resilience-themed Virtual Field Trips and educational videos to reach schools & students remotely.”

The EP takes wing by honoring the great pollinators—the bees and butterflies—on the bright, lilting “Bees Are Buzzin’,” which opens with bouncy electric piano chords before blossoming into chorus of humming voices that evoke the sounds and activities of these harbingers of spring hovering over flowers, reminding us of the vibrant beauty of nature. With its jangly and quasi-psychedelic folkiness, the song sounds like it would be right at home if it were sung at a celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970.

“Seasons of the Trees” cleverly raps through the annual stages of a tree’s life: the changing colors of its leaves in the fall, the present of the evergreen’s boughs on Christmas, the tap-tap-tap of the maple trees in spring. “Shy Hawk” opens with the soaring strains of a Casio K5 which build the nest out of which a baby hawk takes wing; cries of the hawk fly through the song, echoing as the song fades out. The Beatles-esque “Make You Happy” embraces community with its soulful keyboards and guitars, with the singers reminding one another that they’ll always be there to “make you happy.” The album’s closing song, the sonically spare “Worry is Natural,” conducts us into an emotional spaciousness with the lead singer’s soaring vocals, reminding us not to worry because it’s not only natural but also because we always have a friend to help us get through it.

Mike + Ruthy recall the origins of the songs: “The proposed titles of the field trips became writing prompts for the Songlab: Power of Pollinators, Forest Mysteries, Birds of Prey, Ponds & Streams, and Managing Stress & Worry. That last title immediately resonated with the young writers and inspired the first two songs, Worry is Natural by Ida (pronounced EE-da) Stoever and Make You Happy by Guinness Van Meter, both aged twelve at the time. The other songs were group co-writes including lyrics from the group’s younger siblings Opal Merenda and Saskia Van Meter and epic grooves and arrangements sparked by drummer, Lee Collins, who’s positivity and feel permeate the recordings and bassist, Will Merenda, who broke his arm sliding into second base at little league resiliently shifted to playing experimental one-handed keys for the recording session.”

The beauty and effervescence of the songs on Ashokan Songlab, Vol. 1 leave us hopeful that a second volume of songs will soon follow.

Vol. 1: Resilience by Ashokan Songlab is available exclusively at Bandcamp – HERE.

The Ashokan Center


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