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Andrew VanNorstrand: That We Could Find a Way to Be
by George Graham
(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/30/2019)
It seems that in an environment of ubiquitous cliched, computer-driven commercial pop, there is a blossoming of interesting acoustic music from contemporary singer-songwriters. It’s music that goes beyond a retro harkening back to the folk music scene of a half century ago, but new music which draws on traditional elements in distinctive way. We have featured several on this review series, and this time we have another. It’s the new release by Andrew VanNorstrand called That We Could Find a Way to Be. It is primarily acoustic, with instruments like fiddle and banjo, which VanNorstrand plays, but also features a rather wide pallet of sound from steel guitar to clarinet, with some electric keyboards and a little drums. The album also shows some Celtic influence.
Andrew VanNorstrand used to be half of the Andrew and Noah Band with his brother. They released five albums between 2004 and 2012. One of them, under the name the Great Bear Trio, also featured their mother Kim Yerton on piano. Andrew VanNorstrand is from Upstate New York and tours the folk scene up and down the East Coast. It’s unclear why the siblings are not working together on this album, but Andrew draws together an interesting group, with a prominent clarinet, played by Anna Patton, along with multi-instrumentalist Dan Billings, who provides keyboard, bass and drums at various times. Van Norstrand is also a multi-instrumentalist in his own right on this album, playing guitar, fiddle, banjo and bass. His vocals are just right for this folky environment, but the band can get somewhat electric at times. Other players include accordionist Rachel Bell, pedal steel man Charlie Rose, and backing vocalist Kailyn Wright, who shares a vocal with VanNorstrand on one piece.
Most of Van Norstrand’s songs are centered on relationships, ranging from outright love songs, to laments at parting. The album also features two instrumentals which nicely highlight the arrangements that help to lift this album much above the singer-songwriter norm with interesting but pleasing combinations of instrumentation.
The generous 12-song album opens with a track called What Am I Supposed to Say a contemplative song about the loss of a love. The song is typical of the interesting but pleasing arrangements that mark the album, with the prominence of the clarinet, not exactly an instrument one often hears with folkies. But it works quite well. <<>>
Somewhat similar in lyrical outlook, but quite different in its musical direction is Lesson Learned which is about a rock-oriented as the album has, whose a little twist is the accordion. <<>>
The album’s odd title, That We Can Find a Way to Be, is a line from the song Blue Ridge Ride, which is given a little country twang with the steel guitar. <<>>
The first of the instrumentals is a medley of The Waterthrush and Origami Reel. And like much on this album, the piece takes a somewhat unexpected direction, going from slow Irish style reel played on fiddle and clarinet with organ <<>> and then for the second part, it goes for Celtic funk. <<>>
Another highlight of the album is a piece called The Deep Blue Green with a kind of old-time folk sound with Van Norstrand on clawhammer-style banjo, but with the clarinet and some spacey electric guitar. The lyrics tell an intriguing but cryptic story. <<>>
Further eclecticism is highlighted on the song Sugar Babe which has almost a jam band quality to it, in the context of another set of rather opaque but tantalizing lyrics. <<>>
A lot more direct in its lyrical approach is Tell Me What You Want to Do Now, which has the sound of an old fashioned rock & roll ballad. <<>>
A bit more toward the folky singer-songwriter style is Two Years (Looking for a Home). It’s a sad song about another love that came apart. <<>>
The album ends with its other instrumental, The Lucky Reel and Sail the Other Side which nicely employs the unconventional combination of VanNorstrand’s fiddle and Anna Patton’s clarinet. <<>>
Upstate New Yorker Andrew VanNorstrand’s new album, That We Could Find a Way to Be, is basically another mostly acoustic singer-songwriter record, but it’s a real standout with its high-quality songs, often with intriguing lyrics, and the wonderfully creative arrangements with unexpected instrumentation -- especially the prominence of the clarinet, and with all of it played very tastefully. Van Norstrand had been on the scene for about 15 years now, previously in a duo with his brother Noah, but this new solo album takes things in a somewhat different but very satisfying direction, all with surprisingly understated playing.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The clarity is commendable most of the time, and the overall mix has a warm inviting sound, though the electric band tracks may be a bit too much of a contrast to the more acoustic pieces in terms of dynamics.
It’s a computer-driven world in the pop music sphere. Thanks to artists like Andrew VanNorstrand, high-quality acoustic-oriented folk-influenced music is thriving creatively.
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