Entries in The Fretless (2)

Tuesday
Jul242018

Reviews by Paul McGee

Mean Mary Blazing Woodstock

This lady is a real talent and her back story is the stuff that makes a movie script seem far-fetched. Raised by a nomadic family, at times in the wilds and the woods, building their own log cabin and embracing a life of home schooling.

Mary James learned to play music at a very young age and is a novelist and a music producer, who has regularly appearared on Nashville TV shows, as well as running her own You Tube channel (35,000 subscribers). Her endorsing of Deering Banjos, an instrument on which she absolutely excels, is proof of her talents as a musician and her dexterity on fiddle and guitars is also most impressive.

Mean Mary is a performing name and whether touring solo or with her sometimes band, Mean Mary & the Contrarys, her musical strengths are always to the fore. While the banjo displays traditional bluegrass sounds, Mary plays the instrument in a way that makes it very melodic & tuneful.

Her brother Frank plays some excellent guitar and this project is a soundtrack to her latest book, Hell Is Naked, about a SWAT agent working undercover as a movie extra. The good thing is that the music stands up as a separate entity and it is not necessary to reference the book to enjoy the music that has been created as an accompaniment piece. 

Ten tracks and plenty of virtuoso playing from Mary & Frank James on banjo, 6 and 12-string guitars violin & percussion. Tracks like Rainy, Rock Of Ages, Lights, Gun, Action and the title track are all instrumentals and played with an elán and verve that is quite infectious. I Face Somewhere, Gone and Sugar Creek Mountain Rushare also expertly delivered. 

Her constant companion through much of this career activity is her Mother/author, Jean James. Some of their videos are a real joy to catch online and I would recommend a visit for a few giggles and to witness some fine musicianship into the bargain.

Mean Mary also peddles a sweet pickin’ balm as a sideline, aimed at all banjo players and beyond - a unique blend of natural plant oils infused with eight essential oils. These plant oils deeply moisturize sooth and protect your skin, keeping it supple for fast pickin’. 

Need I say any more…? Big smiles all round!

Spencer MacKenzie Cold November Self Release

Still in his teenage years, this young Canadian musician certainly knows his way around a fretboard. This is a second release and the quality of playing is very impressive indeed. There are hints of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the style with some excellent solo breaks and passionate Blues riffs. The future is certainly bright for this young player and already he is punching well above his tender years in terms of the quality of his sound and natural ability. 

The title track, Cold November, is a tribute to the families of the Paris attacks in 2015 and the studio musicians deliver consistently high standards across all ten songs (written by MacKenzie). Move On Down The Track; Haunt Me; Next Door Neighbour Blues and She Don’t Care are strong examples of the fine musicianship on display, with a horn section that impresses while the core band deliver a tight sound that allows MacKenzie to solo around the rhythm with an unrestrained joy. One to watch.

Steve Dawson Lucky Hand Black Hen 

This is Steve Dawson’s 8th album and his first record of instrumental music since Rattlesnake Cage appeared in 2014. A multiple Juno Award-winning producer, for this project he turned to long-time collaborator and friend, Jesse Zubot to assist in scoring and arranging the strings for five of the ten tracks included. 

With the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver providing the space required, Dawson recorded live with up to twelve microphones in various positions to capture the guitar and orchestration. Contributions from Peggy Lee (cello), Jesse Zubot and his brother Josh (violins) and John Kastelic (viola) create a rich tapestry of sound and the perfect back-drop for quiet days spent in contemplation or lazy evenings by the fireside with a favourite glass of wine, perhaps. Tracks such as The Circuit Rider Of Pigeon Forge; Bone Cave; Old Hickory Breakdown; Little Harpeth and Bugscuffle are worthy mentions across the project but really, there is not a weak track on display.

Playing a range of guitars – acoustic, 12-string, national tricone, weissenborn, ukulele – the depth of Dawson’s talent lies in the fact that the melodic progressions are seamless and give the impression of total fluidity and graceful ease. Joined also by Jeremy Berkman (trombone), Nick Anderson (french horn), Sam Davidson (clarinet), John Reischman (mandolin) and Charlie McCoy (harmonicas) on selected tracks, it all works as a composite whole & the fact that he has produced and/or played on more than 80 albums since the turn of the millennium says it all really and speaks volumes for the national treasure that he has become in his native Canada.

The Vagabond Something Wicked This Way Comes Eggsong

Based in Norfork, England this ensemble releases their third album of songs and their sound is very much based in the area of Folk/Roots with traces of a harder Rock edge sprinkled through a number of the ten tracks included here. The band is comprised of nine members, which I am sure makes touring something of a logistical challenge; all those hotel rooms & meals to cover and the practicalities of transportation and instrument space - glad I’m not the tour manager!

In any event, their excellent music is well worth investing in and the organic sound is a heady mixture of fiddles, mandolin, pedal steel, dobro, flute, clarinet, sax, trumpet, guitars, keyboards and the occasional kitchen sink thrown in for good measure! This raggle, taggle band of gypsies resemble a Fisherman’s Blues era of the Waterboys with elements of Dylan (title track), Randy Newman (Spiritual Man) and Three Dog Night (One For The Road). 

Tracks like Bright Are The Stars, Not My Day To Die and Zoetrope, are very melodic and overall, the celebratory sound is very appealing. The quality of musicianship and production from José McGill and Gregory Cook, both band members, is very clear and balanced to include all members in the mixing & mastering, so that none of the (many) instruments get drowned out. 

The Fretless Live from the Art Farm Self Release

The Fretless is a Canadian four piece from Toronto & Vancouver who play fiddle tunes and folk melodies that are intricate, sprinkled with high-energy performance and a vibrancy borne from years of playing together. The goal is to continually push traditional music as far as possible and to expand the rhythmic, harmonic and structured arrangement style of the many folk genres. 

They have won multiple Canadian Folk Music Awards and a JUNO Award for Instrumental Album of the Year. Trent Freeman (fiddle, viola), Karrnnel Sawitsky (fiddle, viola), Eric Wright (cello), Ben Plotnick (fiddle, viola). This Live project was recorded at the Artfarm recording studio in front of an audience to try and capture the dynamism of their live performances. The tracks are all traditional Irish tunes and they are a vibrant and tracks such as Jenny Welcome To Charlie/ Bear Island; Johnny O’Leary’s/The Miller’s Maggot/ The Sally Gardens; The Pipe On The Hob/Bixie’s Jig and the closer, The Star Of Munster are all fine examples of this fine band in full flight. 

Dana Cooper Incendiary Kid Travianna

Working with co-producer/guitarist Thomm Jutz, this is the 28th recording in a career that has seen this artist work through the vagaries of the music industry since the 1970’s when he first recorded with Shake Russell and with his own rock band, Dana Cooper's DC3.

Incendiary Kid is a cohesive album of ten songs that cover a whole gambut of emotions, from wanting an idyllic World where love gets its own reward (Flat Made Round), sharing the daily load by reaching out to another (Traveller Too), isolation (Bird Or a Fish, Maybe Tomorrow), disillusionment (My America), relationships (Summertime Woman, Song of the West) and corporate greed (Making a Killing). With a sound that is based in acoustic folk/rock, Cooper’s finger-picking guitar style is complimented by his rich vocals. 

He regularly visits Ireland and travels around the countryside with a bus of tourists in tow; acting as both guide and performer at various stop overs. This is an activity that other artists have been turning to in recent times as an idea to open additional income streams and to keep their core fan base interested in ongoing activities and projects.

Saturday
Jul082017

Reviews by Paul McGee

Eileen Kozloff Just Words MoosiCowlia

The sleeve says to file under Americana/Country and who am I to argue? However, on listening to these songs the sound has more in common with traditional Folk music to these ears.

The opening track, Always Wrong From The Start, sounds like a Mark Knopfler riff with John Kelly playing very fluid electric guitar melody.  The pedal steel on Coming Back To You has Rob Pastore turning in some fine backing runs. Guitar Man sounds like a Neil Young tribute complete with harmonica part from Hank Woji, who also produced the album and chipped in with acoustic guitar parts on a number of tracks. The violin of Jeff Duncan comes to the fore on 5,775 to dramatic effect in setting an atmosphere for the acoustic guitar work of Eileen Kozloff .

And so, the rest of the project unfolds across the 11 songs included here. Autoharp dominates the arrangement on To The River I’ll Go and there is a distinctly Folky feel to the traditional sound of No More War Anymore and the sweet strum of Asunder and Take Me Back

Eileen Kozloff is a multi-instrumentalist who has been actively involved in the autoharp world for many years. She is best known for her unique "pick-less" style of diatonic autoharp and for her clear vocals.

She has released two critically acclaimed CD’s with her former band, Well Tempered String Band and is now performing as a solo artist having released Solitary Rider (2006) and Hearts And Souls Entwined (2007). Both recordings were released under the Moosicowlia Label and this third release builds on the positive critical reaction she has been receiving. 

The Furious Seasons Look West Stone Garden

This band is based in L.A. and has released four previous albums as a 5-piece. This project is an acoustic affair with David Steinhart and Paul Nelson on acoustic guitar and vocals and Jeff Steinhart on stand-up bass. 

The vocal harmonies are beautifully mixed with some excellent playing and the understated nature of the production leaves plenty of room for the talents of these players. Lyrically the songs address relationship issues in all their different guises. 

Long Shot speaks of working through difficult times and What’s Coming Next laments over a past relationship now ended. Best Plans deals with the loss of a business while The Tape charts the life of an older family member who lived through hard times. Summer Flame is a memory of young days and innocent beginnings.

The final song is superbly crafted and tells of 4 friends who shared close birthdays but sadly only one now remains alive. There is the suggestion of a drink problem in the lines; “Just this one”; Became early hours, I put another day to waste, I wish I’d never got the taste, You can believe that you’re not to blame? and Hey denial - have you met shame?"

Excellent stuff indeed and there is a nice warmth to the production, with the easy, fluid playing an understated joy. A gentle record to suit the mood on a lazy Sunday morning over a hot coffee and the hint of Spring in the air. 

Harrow Fair Call To Arms Roaring Girl

This duo is Miranda Mulholland (Great Lake Swimmers, Belle Starr) and Andrew Penner (Sunparlour Players). Miranda has built a strong reputation as a sought-after session musician and has played and toured with many top-line acts over the years, while Andrew Penner has been involved in Canadian Country music for many years now.

This release slots into the interesting & quirky world of the Handsome Family or the Civil Wars as a reference point. The playing and the production is innovative and edgy with songs like Call To Arms, Bite The Way and Hangnail challenging the listener with a dynamic that excites.

Recorded in Toronto and produced by Andrew Penner, the superb arrangements highlight the many talents of these two musicians who impress greatly. How Cold has a traditional folk feel with a modern treatment while Emmaline highlights the fine vocal of Miranda and the haunting, understated violin parts. It all comes together on the final track, Been There Ways with a haunting delivery from both musicians and an arrangement that leaves you wanting just one more song.

Well worth checking this one out and it just gets better and better with repeated plays.

The Fretless Bird’s Nest Self Release

The Fretless is a Canadian group of four musicians who play instrumental music on string instruments. They are made up of Karrnnel Sawitsky on Fiddle & Viola; Trent Freeman on Fiddle & Viola; Ivonne Hernandez on Fiddle & Viola and Eric Wright on Cello.

In 2012 they released their debut album, Waterbound, which was awarded Instrumental Album of the Year at the Western Canadian Music Awards. The Canadian Folk Music Awards saw the group win both Ensemble of the year and Instrumental Group of the Year. 

This new release sees the group take the traditional airs of past compositions and apply a current interpretation which keeps the music alive and vibrant. There are nine songs across 36 minutes and the dynamic in the playing is constantly shifting in order to hold the attention of the listener. Ronim Road/Bella Coola are two original pieces that sound steeped in the Irish tradition of jigs and reels, while Maybe Molly is an infectious jaunt across the sunny fields of a summer’s day. Hidden View is a more reflective arrangement, as is the closing track 38 & Gone.

Musically, the goals of the group are to expand the many folk genres they visit. All four members have come from very different traditional and contemporary backgrounds but are influenced to push traditional music as far as possible.

Jon and Roy The Road Ahead Is Golden Self Release

There is a nice groove and a low-fi appeal to this release from duo Jon Middleton and Roy Vizer who have released this new album – their 7th in a career that has seen them develop from an initial meeting at University. Hailing from Victoria, BC the vocals/guitar/harmonica of Middleton are perfectly in synch with the understated drums/percussion playing of Vizer. In the gentle song arrangements lie a hidden depth where on repeated listens the melody lines come through and the play Louis Sadava on bass is supported by co-producer Stephen Franke who plays Wurlitzer and piano. Roots/Folk music to calm the soul and tracks like Breakdown, How The Story Goes, Nothing But Everything, Every Night and Windowlinger in the mind and boast of a fine release that is worth checking out.

Annie Gallup Lucy Remembers Her Father Gallway Bay

Annie’s website describes this latest release as twelve new songs that are meditations on fragility, mortality, family, survival, and love. Who am I to disagree? Along with her close collaborator Peter Gallway, Annie Gallup has been releasing music of real depth and quality for many years now and she deserves due recognition for the musical vision and scope that is brought to the table. Visceral and challenging but never trite, her muse is worth the surfboard ride across the waves to a quiet destination. This release feels deeply personal, like eavesdropping on a conversation that you should not be listening to, but all the more compelling for the experience.  Hers’ is a singular talent, reflective and yearning for something just beyond our reach. Songs that deal with the past and the fragility of relationships are laid bare. Being Her Child, Lucy Remembers Her Father andBluebird explore the complexities of the family dynamic. Other tracks look into relationships, devious and needy; Loyalty, Strange Boy, He Will Never Love MeLuminary looks at estrangement and unresolved love with a curiosity while Story is a spoken word reflection on the pointless search for meaning in all the grief we encounter. Very impressive and rewarding but not for the faint-hearted.  

Rachel Sage The Tide MPRESS

This 4-track EP adds to the impressive catalogue of music created by Rachel Sage over a career that has seen her release a body of work that stands tall against many of her peers. Her accomplished and comprehensive catalogue captures a voice and music that hints at greatness and this current project sees the proceeds donated to one of the world's leading international refugee assistance organizations. Songwriters come & go but this lady is a real keeper – sublime composition and melody combine to create a powerful result. These are protest songs and reflect on the need for both empathy and acceptance in the World right now. The title track speaks about compassion and the need for everyman on our various journeys. Disarm Distrust is written for the victims of the recent Orlando shootings and Tomorrow speaks of euphemisms and hope.

Oh Susanna A Girl in Teen City Stella

This is a paean to the past from an artist who has taken a look through life’s infinite telescope to chart the path that she negotiated in order to arrive at a signpost that reads ‘What Next’? Produced by the talented Jim Bryson who contributes on guitar, keyboards & vocals, the 12 songs that cover almost 50 minutes read like a ‘dear diary’ exercise in exhuming a past that sits very much in the present tense. My Boyfriend, Getting Ready, Walked All the Way Home, Tickets On The Weekend and My Old Vancouver give a sense of what is at play here. Quality playing and production, allied with a strong song-writing talent make this as strong as her past releases and an artist well worth exploring further. 

Ted Russell Kamp Flying Solo PoMo

This accomplished artist has been a favourite of Lonesome Highway across his seven critically-acclaimed albums that nail the country / roots / Americana flag firmly to his mast. For this release, he has taken 12 songs and played them in a largely acoustic setting with six songs recorded at shows or radio stations and six as brand new songs recorded at his home studio, The Den. From the mandolin rhythm of Old Folks Blues to the soulful groove of If I Had A Dollar; the reflective acoustic strum of When She Flies and the bluesy beat and feel of Lookin’ For Someone, it is evident that all is well in the world of this talented artist and he has produced another work of creative depth as a solo performer.    

Worry Dolls Go Get Gone Self Release

After two EP releases (2011 & 2015) this duo decided to change their focus and relocated to Nashville in order to record this debut album. The ten tracks are a mixture of gentle, stripped back acoustic Folk and some up-tempo arrangements played with a quiet confidence and a focus to deliver work of an enduring quality.

Duo Zoe Nicol and Rosie Jones team up with producer Neilson Hubbard who has worked with artists such as Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Ben Glover and Amy Speace. Together they create some fine moments and the uncluttered arrangements allow the sweet melodies and hypnotic harmonies to flourish. She Don’t Live Here, Things Always Work Out and Someday Soon are three highlights and the experienced studio musicians add greatly to a relaxed feel and a gentle mood that soothes across the listening experience.  

Son of the Velvet Rat Dorado Fluff & Gravy

Don’t be put off by the very strange band name. Son of the Velvet Rat is the project of Austrian Songwriter Georg Altziebler and his wife Heike Binder. He plays a variety of instruments and she adds organ and accordion. They live in Joshua Tree and the California desert runs through the sparse mood of the ten songs shared here. Victoria Williams is among the notable musicians who add their talents to this project and the impression is one of ragged savoir-faire or, as producer Joe Henry says on the liner notes; songs that hint at bankable redemption. Fragile vocals counter the sweet melody lines of songs like Love’s the Devil’s Foe, Starlite Motel and Sweet Angela, while the loose feel of the recording, completed over a few days, is always to the fore. Moody and magnetic.