Crooked Still defined: Traditional ballads arranged for 5-string banjo and cello with the spotlight on a sensuous singer with a breathy delivery. That’s the dictionary definition, which was derived by who made up the band. Aiofe (EE-FAH) O’Donovan is the singer and Rushad Eggleston WAS the cellist. The gifted but quirky Eggleston left the band and was replaced by two people: Tristan Clarridge is now on cello and Brittany Hass plays 5 string violin. Rounding out the ensemble is Corey DiMario on bass and Dr. Gregory Liszt on banjo. Liszt is one of the few folk musicians who is also an MIT graduate.
So, Crooked Still has an impressive cast, and an unusual mix. Did you notice what’s missing? Though O’Donovan plays guitar and piano, she rarely does in this context. Her focus is on her singing. And why not, she’s got the New York Yankees (better make that the Boston Red Sox) of instrumentalists behind her, and the ensemble sound requests the absence of conventional rhythm. The group wants your ears to focus on the cello, violin, and banjo, and on Aiofe’s distinctive delivery.
The result may be closer to jazz with all of the improvisation, but the musicians seldom become abstract, which is smart. Crooked Still is already so different, that they would risk becoming inaccessible if they played too ‘free.’ Rather, the collective sound is engaging, powerful, daring, and fun. You may know some of the songs and you’re familiar with all the instruments, but no one has their combination. That, by the way, is the definition of style – when critics or fans have difficulty coming up with comparisons.
Based out of Montreal, Annabelle Chvostek used to be in the Wailin’ Jennys. In fact, she wrote and sang “Devil’s Paintbrush Road” off Firecracker. Like Cara Luft before her, this ex-Jenny has an impressive new solo album. Resilience is not a loud and fast rocker, but it has real staying power; it’s one of those albums that attract you initially, but the more time you spend with it, the easier it is to become enraptured.
The album’s title describes a terrible loss, but comments on the heart’s remarkable ability to recover. As with many of the songs, Annabelle plays multiple instruments: mandolin, violin, piano, & organ. Becky Foon adds texture with cello. Texture is a good word for this entire album: subtle accordion, multiple electric guitars, but without volume or flare, and eastern percussion. “Wait For it” is a delightful tale of a city couple finding love in the country, and provides emotional balance for the album with its happiness. “Piece of You” is a wish to spend one day and one night together in love without necessarily being sexual lovers. The album includes humor: “I Left My Brain” and swing: Ella Jenkin’s “Racing with the Sun,” the only song Chvostek didn’t write. Resilience is titled well. This CD invites you back for more, and you won’t be disappointed when you oblige.
Lissa plays fiddle and sings and on her new release Song she reveals to us that she is also a bit of an historian. The album has a theme. It traces ancient British ballads that found their way to Maine, her home state. More importantly, she has arranged these songs so they sound contemporary and fun. Though the focus is on the stories, her rhythm section makes her shine. Often there are two guitars, bass, and light percussion provided by Stefan Amidon. For flavor, she offers two accordions (Jeremiah McLane and Sharon Shannon) on “The Fair Maid by the Sea.” Eric Merrill, who is showing up on everyone’s album, plays banjo & guitar.
The album’s best offering may be “Little Musgrove and Lady Barnswell.” It’s about a Lord’s wife falling for a sheepherder. Bad things happen to both of them, but the result is an absolutely delightful romp (go figure!) Lissa has really jumped up a notch as a featured artist – her playing is full of style based on exceptional technique, and she is singing with more confidence and power than ever. There are several medleys with a song and a tune combined and these work well since she is now evenly talented as a singer and a soloist.
~ Jim Blum
Folk music in the UK is alive and well with Bellowhead, Tim Van Eyken, Seth Lakeman, Spiers & Boden and many others. Add to that list Kerfuffle, a young English band we discovered at Cropredy last year. Their new album, To the Ground, is the group’s fourth release and features mostly English material, with smart song choices and arrangements that are unique to the band. An extremely inspiring version of “The Cruel Mother” called “Down by the Greenwood Side,” may be the album’s highlight, with a driving rhythm section and Hannah James’ pure and natural singing. The band’s past three albums, along with awards, formal music training, and high profile festival gigs, have shown the group’s accredited virtuosity of the genre. This new album finally shows off the group’s vocal range too, especially in the song “Arise Arise.” Kerfuffle has also managed to avoid the obvious standards – no version of “The Blacksmith” here. Instead, they have delved deep to deliver material not performed to death. While “The Cruel Mother” may be considered by some as a standard, Kerfuffle handles it like a brand new song, with an arrangement we haven’t heard before. Clearly inspired by greats like Pentangle and Fairport, Kerfuffle has delivered a smart album, full of creativity, originality and musicianship that’s on par with the best of the best in the genre.
~ Chris Boros