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(Native and Fine Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/18/2009)
Sometimes in music, simplicity can be impressive. A large band and big production can have a lot of appeal, but with the right musicians, one or two people can make memorable music. This week we have an excellent example, especially notable given that the instruments represented are banjo and fiddle. It's the new CD by Bill Evans and Megan Lynch called Let's Do Something.
One normally things of banjo and fiddle as the tools of bluegrass, though in that combination, often old-timey Appalachian music. Evans and Lynch's recording is remarkably eclectic, ranging from almost classical in sound to remakes of pop songs.
Bill Evans, not to be confused with the late jazz pianist or the jazz saxophonist of the same name, is the banjo player. He has been on the bluegrass and folk scene for quite a while, having played with the Dry Branch Fire Squad, David Grisman, Hazel Dickens, Laurie Lewis and others. He also recorded a couple of CDs leading his own group, and literally wrote the book on his instrument -- he is author of the "Banjo for Dummies." Megan Lynch plays the fiddle and is also an impressive vocalist. She won a National Championship fiddle contest, and worked with country singer Pam Tillis and banjo maven Tony Trischka among others.
Normally such a combination of fiddle and banjo would come off as decidedly rustic and tonally rather thin-sounding. But both are fine players, and like Béla Fleck and Tony Trischka, Evans is able to elevate his banjo to a much more expressive and subtle level. Of course, the violin is certainly capable of much in terms of subtlety, and Ms. Lynch's vocals are outstanding. What they do together is not so much "picking" in the bluegrass sense, but well-thought arrangements that do the most with their instrumentation. They also are not above taking advantage of the capabilities of the studio and they do a fair amount of overdubbing, which still usually sounds subtle in keeping with the direction of the album.
Although there are a couple of original instrumental pieces on the CD, most of Let's Do Something consists of their versions of songs that are miles from bluegrass or old-timey music. They do compositions by Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, Nick Drake, and John Gorka, as well as more contemporary pop songs by the bands The Editors and We the Kings. The rock remakes especially are fascinating and very creative.
The CD starts with a contemporary song called Rocks and Water, that has a wistfully melancholy sound. It reminds me of the kinds of songs that the late folk singer-songwriter Dave Carter wrote. <<>>
The first of the band's covers is Nick Drake's Northern Sky. The original version had jazzy instrumentation with strings, but here the strings are pared down to a fiddle -- actually a couple of them through overdubbing. Evans plays some Dobro plus his banjo and guitar. The duo really does the song justice with their sensitive yet creative treatment. <<>>
About as close as Evans and Lynch get to sounding like traditional music is one the first of the instrumentals, an original by Evans called The Distance Between Two Points, but the piece also has its more contemporary facets, having a bit more to do with David Grisman than old time Appalachian fiddle music. <<>>
The most creative cover the duo does is of a song called Check Yes Juliet by the young Florida power pop band We the Kings. The original is very electric and found its way onto the pop charts for a while. Evans and Lynch keep the upbeat nature of the song, while also playing with some studio effects and liberal overdubbing. The multiple banjos turn out to be a great twist on the song. <<>>
Another cover from the alternative rock world is a song called The Fall by the band The Editors. It's another song that started our very electric, but this one falls a little short of the other covers. The song itself is not that good to start with, and compared to Ms. Lynch, Evans' vocal is not as impressive. <<>>
Evans' does do a very good vocal on the duo's version of Van Morrison's Into the Mystic. It's another highlight of the album. <<>>
Evans and Lynch take another turn toward the traditional in sound on a song called Old Dog, which even sounds like the name of an old folk song, but it's apparently a contemporary composition by one Chris Coole. The pair return to the kind melancholy sound that they can do so well, without sounding maudlin. <<>>
The classical influence comes on the other instrumental, Sleeping Lady by Evans. Ms. Lynch plays some overdubbed string arrangements while banjo plays a kind of lament. <<>>
Another intriguing choice for a tune to cover is Song for Sonny Liston, by Dire Straits founder Mark Knopfler. It's an ode to the prizefighter, and the duo give it one their relatively few old-timey treatments, but with some added studio effects. <<>>
Bill Evans and Megan Lynch's new CD Let's Do Something is an enjoyable and pleasantly surprising recording that takes the traditional folk pairing of banjo and fiddle into unexpected places, with a combination of originals and highly creative covers. They manage to take their ostensibly limited instrumentation and make remarkably rich music, with influences from traditional to commercial pop. Ms. Lynch's fine vocals are also a key to the CD's artistic success.
Our sonic grade is a B-plus. The acoustic instruments are generally well recorded, and when there are studio effects, they are tastefully handled. But the CD suffers, as all too many do, from heavy-handed volume compression in a misguided attempt to make this acoustic CD loud.
While less is not always more in music, Bill Evans and Megan Lynch show that two talented people with limited instrumentation can make for impressive sounds.
(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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