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(Signature Sounds 2013 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/23/2008)
Since the 1980s, acoustic music has become an area for considerable innovation, all the while using some very old instruments. We're now in a kind of third generation of artists and bands that trace their pedigree back to the experimentation that David Grisman did in the late 1970s, mixing the instrumentation of bluegrass with jazz, rock and other rather non-traditional styles.
Among the latest generation is the band called Crooked Still, from the prolific Boston area folk scene. This is a band who combined rather unconventional instrumentation of a cello, bass, and banjo. They are also one of a number of young groups that have appeared recently who specialize in mainly old traditional music, just like in the old days of the 1960s folk music boom.
The members of Crooked Still have strong academic backgrounds. Vocalist Aoife O'Donovan and bassist Corey DeMario were classmates at the New England Conservatory of Music. The banjo player, Gregory Lizst holds a Ph.D. in biology from M.I.T. Together with their former cello player, Rushad Eggleston, they created a distinctive sound, shaped in part by their instrumentation, and in part by their musically adventurous spirit.
After five years together, cellist Eggleston decided to leave the group in November 2007. So the remaining members opted to carry on and recruited two new instrumentalists, another cellist, Tristan Claridge, and a fiddle player named Brittany Haas, who plays a five-stringed instrument. And that gives the band some string sounds in the upper register for the first time. So sometimes, the group can resemble a classical ensemble with the violin, cello and double bass, though supplemented by the banjo.
The revised lineup of Crooked Still has released a new CD, entitled perhaps appropriately, Still Crooked, reflecting their interest in continuity despite the altered lineup. And the CD accomplishes its goal. The sound is as eclectic as ever, but definitely recognizable for their musical approach. Like their last album, most of the music is traditional, but it's reworked in quite creative ways. The band said that they got together to rehearse a just few days before the scheduled recording sessions, done in Upstate New York. They listened to old recordings of the traditional songs, stripped them down to their essence, and then each of the band members would contribute ideas on how to reconstruct the songs. The material ranges from a song by the great folk artist Olla Belle Reed to bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, to a couple of hymns. There is also some original material which sounds traditional.
The result is a recording which is at once very appealing and often somewhat surprising in texture. Aoife O'Donovan's vocals are light, airy and sometimes a little melancholy to fit in with the songs, while the instrumentation with its domination by the three string players, resembles a cross between a classical chamber group and bluegrass.
Things get under way with their treatment of an Olla Belle Reed song called Undone in Sorrow. The sound is fairly typical of the creative mix for which Crooked Still has become known. Like a lot of songs on the CD, there's death in the lyrics. The addition of the fiddle to the group is a change from their last two recordings, but hardly a drastic one. <<>>
The Absentee, a traditional song with somewhat Biblical lyrics, is given a more upbeat treatment. It's another fascinating sonic mix. <<>>
Another interesting and pleasing track is Tell Her to Come Back Home, also based on traditional music. The strings are quite prominent in their cross between old-time fiddle tunes and a classical string quartet. <<>>
Back before radio and the movies, folk songs and ballads would provide the entertainment complete with sex and violence. Ms. O'Donovan wrote a song called Low Down and Dirty in the style that climaxes in a murder and takes place in a graveyard. The group is joined by Ruth Unger and Amy Helm of the band Ollabelle another of the young groups who highlight traditional music. <<>>
Also written by Crooken Still's members is a piece called O Agamemnon, which so far as I could tell is a love song without any death or murder going on. <<>>
One of the more striking arrangements on the album is Pharaoh, a traditional spiritual, which the band turns all dark and brooding. <<>>
A piece called Florence seems to be a 19th Century hymn. Crooked Still gives it one their prettiest arrangements on the CD.
For me, one of the particular standout tracks is Did You Sleep Well, a contemporary tune written by one Nathan Taylor. It's a fairly elaborate story song. The upbeat arrangement again highlights Crooked Still's distinctive sound. <<>>
The CD ends with a song by bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, Baby What's Wrong with You. It's interesting hearing a blues song in this kind of musical setting. <<>> The band also gets into a jam toward the end. <<>>
Still Crooked, the new third release by the eclectic acoustic group Crooked Still, is fine recording that highlights the creative work of a group who represent the current generation of acoustic artists who are not only doing innovative things musically, but also applying their energies to old traditional songs, helping to underscore a kind of mini-revival of folk songs in the classic sense. The group's conservatory-influenced approach to their string instruments, their somewhat unconventional instrumentation -- not exactly bluegrass with the prominence of cello -- and Aoife O'Donovan's downright beautiful vocals, combine for a memorable sound. The revised personnel, with the addition of a violin, gives the group's music a slightly altered texture. Where previously, the strings were all in the low register, the current lineup can resemble a classical string group, though one steeped in Appalachian folk music.
Our grade for sound quality is about a "B-plus." The downgrade is for the usual reason. There is good clarity and nice warmth on the instrumentation and Ms. O'Donovan's vocals, but there was needless volume compression applied to the recording, smudging out some of the music's dynamics.
This is a good time for both acoustic music and traditional folk songs, and Crooked Still's Still Crooked is a stellar example in both respects.
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