As you might guess, I review LOTs of new releases, often 20 a week. Since I’ve been listening to the latest for over 30 years, like it or not, I’m in a position to notice invention and xeroxes. The use of poetic devices, implied themes, clever arrangements, and the like are always a plus, but let’s focus on originality. These impressions may or may not reflect our entire staff.
Dynamo Laura Love cannot be imitated. Her roots-rock funk-folk group is cutting edge and entertaining. Continuing to stay one step ahead of her audience, Negrass presents a whole new band (Scott Vestal, Tim O’Brien, even another bassist, Mike Bub). Laura recently went on a search of her family history; her great grandmother survived slavery for example, and migrated north (Check out the song Saskatchewan). This album demanded lots of research and preparation and it shows. Even old warhorses like Shady Grove are presented so differently, its almost as if it’s a new song. Even though she’s gone bluegrass here, the energy ROCKS; you could dance to the whole album and check out the lyrics on the 3rd or 4th listen. Then you’ll never tire of it.
Is this Celtic or Middle Eastern? Wait a minute… aren’t The McDades from Alberta? I saw this group stun the Folk Alliance crowd in Nashville a few years ago and today they are even better. A family band with years of experience,
you cannot pigeon-hole them. Their instrumentals start with an Irish flair, but feature jazz like solos and arrangements. The melodies seem influenced by Eastern European style time signatures, often featuring bass solos, and Jeremiah McDade almost cannot contain himself on flutes and whistles. He just explodes. The group has male and female lead singers, good song selection, and they don’t copy what they listen to.
This one came out in 2005 but we just got it. All instrumental, each selection is a fusion of traditions from two different countries and features Joe on at least 7 instruments. You might hear Jamaica and Ireland, Africa and Appalachia, or a tune like ‘Turkey in the Straw’ the way Frenchmen Django Reinhardt might have played it. David Grisman calls Craven the world’s most versatile sideman, and this time it’s Joe who has plenty of help (Mike Marshall, Jim Boggio) though he barely needs them! Try to contain yourself listening to this, and be thankful you don’t have my job trying to figure out which tunes NOT to play on Folk Alley!
Two words: SLOW DOWN. If everything is in high gear all the time, then there’s no place to go. There’s also the risk of every song sounding the same. Yes, speed is fun, but style is better. The Hackensaws own all the right instruments, now they need to give them a chance to breathe. Start with composition – writing or choosing songs with a message. Tell us the story in a colorful way; use imagery. It’s often a good idea to hire a producer who doesn’t know your material; a fresh set of ears will open yours. There were a couple gems on the last album, especially High Faller about witnessing a death. This was very moving, and demonstrates that the ingredients are there. The Hackensaws will get better, but not if they rush things.
I’m guessing Bob attended Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace music camp in Ohio, because he sounds just like Jorma. The trouble is, we already have Jorma. Too many of these songs have been chosen too many times. (Deep River Blues, Sittin’ On Top of The World, Keep on the Sunny Side, Pallet on the Floor.) Unfortunately, each version sounds too much like Doc Watson’s or Jorma’s. If you’re going to tackle one of these songs, change it. Put it in a different key, add other instruments, make it YOURS. Listen to Harry Manx tackle Sittin’ on Top, or Laura Love’s arrangement of Shady Grove. Recording familiar songs demands reinvention. There’s nothing wrong with going to a restaurant and trying to make the same meal at home. There’s no need, however, to make it for us. We can go to the same restaurant. It’s obvious Bob knows how to cook. I want to taste his recipes!
I often tell Linda Fahey that I listen to every CD the same way I attend every movie. I do not pretend to be neutral. I expect to like it. What other way is there to live? If I’m disappointed, so be it, but I don’t walk in the door with a scowl. When the Chocolate Drops played Merlefest in April, I rushed to the stage to see them. I left after three songs. Old music played the same old way – they danced, but nothing looked very challenging. I thought the album might be different, but there’s nothing there that isn’t already in our library on other CDs or records. They’re being touted as an “African American string band” and that’s fine, but what makes the Chocolate Drops special? This question need to be answered before the next recording. I’m afraid we’ve already received this one several times.