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(Signature Sounds 2005 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/23/2007)
The contemporary folk scene continues to evolve in various directions. One of them is a kind of revival of traditional-style music, including old spirituals, that was the bread and butter of the folk music revival of the 1960s. Today's artists, though, unlike the rather purist traditionalists of the early Sixties, apply a fair amount eclecticism to their approach. Newer groups like Ollabelle and even long-time performers like Natalie Merchant and even Bruce Springsteen have been revisiting the old songs. Recently, we featured on this album review series the new recording by Susan Werner who took a different spin and created a batch of brand new songs in the old Gospel style, often with lyrics that were not exactly in keeping with the sentiments of the old hymns.
This week, we have the latest recording by a group who have known to draw on old traditional songs from time to time, but also take a decidedly wide-ranging approach to them: Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, whose new CD, their third in the group's seven-year existence, is called Big Old Life.
Rani Arbo is a Boston-area fiddler and vocalist who was previously associated with the beloved New England bluegrass band Salamander Crossing, who were also known for their considerable eclecticism. Ms. Arbo formed Daisy Mayhem upon the dissolution of Salamander Crossing, and she used that as an opportunity to get even more eclectic, not being bound by the stylistic or instrumental constraints of bluegrass. Instead, there is a little blues, swing, hints of zydeco, country, and Ms. Arbo can be the sultry chanteuse if she wants to. It was four years ago when their last CD Gambling Eden appeared, with its highly creative mix of old and new songs, and their almost whimsically sensuous version of the old song O Death.
Since the last album, as they say, life happened. Ms. Arbo had a child and then seven months later was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. Other members of the band, which includes Ms. Arbo's husband Scott Kessel on percussion, had other family matters -- they are all parents of young children. Ms. Arbo decided to continue performing while undergoing cancer treatment, which fortunately was successful, leaving her free of disease.
So the band eventually decided it was ready to record again, and they set about gathering songs from such diverse sources as the traditional, plus songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, which they completely rearrange, and a smattering of originals and some interesting new songs by other composers. Once again, they let their musical imagination run free with the arrangements. This time, they worked with producer/engineer Chris Rival, who encouraged them to go where their musical muse took them. In additonal to Ms. Arbo who plays fiddle and a little guitar, Daisy Mayhem includes her husband Scott Kessel, who plays what they call "drumship enterprise" a collection of percussion instruments that runs toward tin cans, cookie tins, and a suitcase, as well as more familiar percussion instruments. On guitar is Anand Nayak, who also plays some mandolin and piano, and on bass is Andrew Kinsey, who also plays some banjo. There are a few musical guests, such as lap steel player Kevin Barry, and some backing vocals by such people as Deb Pasternak, a Boston area singer-songwriter in her own right.
Ms. Arbo says that she first heard the song called Joy Comes Back, by one Scott Staples, back in 2004 at a Boston area folk festival. At the time, she had a one month old baby. Six months later came her cancer diagnosis. She said that at first she loved the song, and then later, she said needed it. Joy Comes Back, opens the CD. After a Gospel-style a cappella opening <<>> the band kicks up the energy level and gives it a vaguely Cajun musical spin. <<>>
Following that is an Arbo original that is the CD's title track, Big Old Life. The group gives it an old-time honky-tonk sound, while the lyrics take a kind a philosophical direction. <<>>
One of two traditional songs on the album is Red Haired Boy. Though it sounds outwardly old timey, the band plays tricks, mixing in a hint of jazz influence with the fiddle and clawhammer-style banjo. <<>>
Ms. Arbo is not the only songwriter in the band. Anand Nayak wrote the song called What's That, which has a kind of nostalgic swing sound that the band has often done, along with somewhat whimsical lyrics. <<>>
Daisy Mayhem is known for their creative reworkings of existing material. They serve up Leonard Cohen's 1985 song Heart with No Compassion surprisingly like a traditional Appalachian hymn. The result is quite compelling. <<>>
They also show their musical imagination with their treatment of Bob Dylan's early song Farewell Angelina, done with dashes of Western Swing, blues and old-time country. <<>>
Bassist Andrew Kinsey contributes an introspective song called Mother of Our Dreams. It turns out to be one of the highlights of the recording. <<>>
The CD ends with a song called Shine On, written by one Daisy May Erlewine, which also takes up the theme of hope and renewal that runs through much of the album. <<>>
Big Old Life is an appropriate title for the new CD from Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, with the way that life has unfolded for Ms. Arbo and the other members of the band and their families in the four years since their last CD. But things have turned out well in life, and so has the CD. It's a delightfully eclectic mix of influences in a mostly acoustic setting, a combination of original songs that can sound traditional, updated traditional songs, and creative reworkings of the songs of others, with first rate musicianship, and the appealing and versatile vocals of Ms. Arbo. The whole CD has a very friendly, informal feel that does tend to mask the creative liberties the group takes with the songs they adopt, and generally transform them into something that is very much their own.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A," which it wins on the sonic restraint exercised by engineer Chris Rival, keeping everything clean and honest-sounding. The dynamic range is decent, with the loud and soft of the performances being given a chance to be captured.
The mixture of the traditional in sound or material and the contemporary in style is one of the appealing facets of the 21st Century folk scene. Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem have been doing this for quite a while, and their new CD Big Old Life, underscores their position as one of the most creative and appealing in the genre.
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