Reviews: Crooked Still, Von Freeman, & more
Shaken by a low sound
The string-band revival has a growing number of young musicians claiming as their influences American fiddle tunes and folk ditties that far predate rock 'n' roll. And the influence cuts both ways. The restless generations that bequeathed punk rock, hip-hop, and mashups aren't content to polish up museum-piece Appalachiana. Instead, they're bringing traditional music into the 21st century-and bringing it to life.
The most stylish, talented, and soulful of these revivalists is the Boston-based Crooked Still, an unusual four-piece that recently signed with the Signature Sounds label to record their growling, danceable, and utterly infectious second album, Shaken by a Low Sound.
The group-Gregory Liszt on banjo, Rushad Eggleston on cello, bassist Corey DiMario, and singer Aoife O'Donovan-are expats from classical music, and it shows in their technique. But boy, can they rock. The cello/bass combo provides a bottom-heavy foundation for Liszt's blues-inspired riffs, and an aural friction results from the contrast between Eggleston, who abuses his instrument into absurdly energetic leads, and O'Donovan, who sings so sweetly and intimately it makes you blush.
The tracks on Shaken by a Low Sound range from familiar
to obscure-highlights include a swinging cover of Bill Monroe's
'Can't You Hear Me Callin'' and a holy rendition of 'Lone Pilgrim.'
There's nothing stuffy, archival, or didactic about the band. They
appear, quite simply, to be having a ball with music that speaks to
them. And this quality is the most traditional thing about
When life steals your lemons, grab an empty fruit cart, smack it
like a drum, and turn the musical world on its head. That's what
African slaves toiling on Peru's coast in the 16th century did,
when their Spanish oppressors forbade them to play drums. Lacing
rhythms coerced from crates, donkey jawbones, and church collection
boxes with Spanish lyrics doused in African and Andean traditions,
they gave birth to 'Afro-Peruvian' beats. The genre continues to
captivate new audiences hundreds of years later, thanks, in part,
to the internationally based foursome Novalima, whose latest disc
infuses historic chants with electronic dance strokes. And if the
group's friend list on MySpace is any indication, the 13-track
album will be a sure hit among DJs and dancing queens
Von Freeman, an 84-year-old tenor saxophonist often compared to
avant-garde adventurer Ornette Coleman, dedicates this startlingly
straightforward, sensuous set of standards 'to my lady fans who
come to hear me on 75th Street.' It seems he's also of a mind to
make them swoon. Framed by a breezy rhythm section, the Chicago
native floats in on rich blue phrases that sway lackadaisically,
sharpen to a slow, soft amber burn, and then exit with a whisper,
equal parts flirtatious and guttural. And while the playlist ('An
Affair to Remember,' 'A Night in Paris,' Charlie Chaplin's 'Smile')
is decidedly old school, Freeman's casual precision-honed on the
blues, bop, and free jazz-is laced with a sense of adventure that
lumps in the throat like new love.
BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY
The Letting Go
Over a 13-year career, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, also known as Will
Oldham, has turned out dozens of low-key folk/alt-country records,
securing recognition as a talented and prolific singer-songwriter.
On The Letting Go, Oldham proves he's still a master of
the minor keys and melancholy themes, but here-more often than
not-Oldham reaches moments of sweet resolution, closing off hanging
chords and delivering songs as charming as they are pensive.
Prominent strings, the occasional flugelhorn, and light percussion
make up the stripped-down sound, which highlights Oldham's
rough-hewn voice and plays to his strength as a lyricist-each song
a confession of love, gratitude, fear, and suffering. Drag City
labelmate Dawn McCarthy adds bare soprano harmonies, uncannily
reminiscent of some traditional folk tune you'd swear you've heard
Tehran-born Lily Afshar is a whoosh of fresh air in the
sometimes fusty classical guitar world, playing her cedar-topped
instrument in unconventional tunings and with palpable passion. On
Hemispheres, she nods to her Middle Eastern heritage with
a fresh, buoyant arrangement of a Turkish folk song and a hypnotic
piece based on traditional Persian modal music. But she also plays
new works by European, North American, and Latin American composers
and arrangers, and the result is a panglobal, consistently gorgeous
recording whose appeal will extend beyond the conservatory crowd to
many fans of ethnic and acoustic music. By the time she picks up a
traditional Persian instrument, the Sehtar, to deliver the
entrancing 'Morgh-eh-Sahar' ('Bird of Dawn'), listeners may have a
new guitar heroine.