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Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton: Been on Your Side
by George Graham
(Free Dirt Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/24/2018)
Folky duos are definitely experiencing a revival of interest. Gillian Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings helped to set the pattern, but there are quite a few such duos that have appeared with recordings recently, and often it’s a male-female pairing, with some of them being spouses. We recently reviewed albums the Scottish duo called The Jellyman’s Daughter, and the cello-violin twosome called Oliver the Crow, and there are recent albums by the Lark and the Loon, The New Zeitgeist, and even the joint albums by banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn. This week we have another very appealing male-female folk duo, who like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, go for a laid-back intimate sound. They are Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton, and their debut album is called Been on Your Side. Courtney Hartman is a member of the all-female bluegrass band Della Mae. Taylor Ashton is a Canadian artist who was part of a band called Fish and Bird, who are currently on hiatus. This is essentially Taylor Ashton’s first full recording, and it focuses on a very spare unadorned sound, often with Ashton playing clawhammer-style banjo, but the musical chemistry between the pair is outstanding.
Both Hartman and Ashton contribute to the composing, with a few joint joint composition, several songs written by one of them individually, and there are two covers, from somewhat unexpected sources. Most of the album is by the duo playing together around the microphones, with a few instances of added woodwinds and some pump organ. Hartman and Ashton recorded in a large house on the water in Massachusetts, according to their booklet notes, and it has an intimate, very unadorned sound. Ms. Hartman does a lot of the lead guitar using an archtop guitar with its distinctive sound, like that of David Rawlings with Gillian Welch. The duo’s vocal harmonies are excellent, but many of the songs have a clear lead vocalist, with the author of the song usually taking that role. The sound evokes old Appalachian music, but there is also some electric guitar in places, often just running the archtop through a guitar amp.
Opening is one of the album’s most appealing songs. It’s by Taylor Ashton and called Wayside. It highlights the warm, intimate sound of the musical collaboration with the prominent sound of Ashton’s banjo. <<>>
That is followed by Meadowlark by Ms. Hartman. A little electric guitar is added, with some birdsong far in the background, for those listening on headphones. <<>>
The title song Been on Your Side, by Ashton is also a highlight of the album. Its lyrics are a statement of unmitigated devotion. <<>>
The first of the covers is Which Will, by the late English singer-songwriter Nick Drake. It’s a nice match for the duo, and it’s interesting hearing the song with a banjo. The duet vocals are also nicely done. <<>>
Another of several love songs on the album is Loving Hands co-written by Hartman and Ashton. A small woodwind group is brought in with a very old-fashioned-sounding arrangement. <<>>
Rather different in both musical and lyrical texture is an Ashton composition called Dead to Me, which is like an old novelty song, with the love definitely unrequited – he’s mad about her, and she can’t stand him. <<>>
Following that is another song about a rocky relationship. Better, also by Ashton, seeks to make amends for the past and hopes to get back into the good graces of the partner. <<>>
The most unusual track on the album is a Courtney Hartman song called Hold Still, performed largely a cappella to the accompaniment of background sounds like a clock striking. <<>>
Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton’s new debut album Been on Your Side is another growing number of folky male-female duet albums that have been appearing recently. This is a particularly appealing one with an intimate, very informal, minimalist sound that borders on the rustic. The songs are first-rate and work well with the sparse musical setting, and cover a nice range of topics, mostly love songs, but usually with a twist, and their vocal harmonies are another of the album’s strengths.
Our grade for sound quality is a B. The recording has much going for it, with a minimalist sound with virtually no distracting effects. But engineer Jacob Blumberg went a bit too far with the old-fashioned rustic approach. It was an analog recording with notable background hiss, and half-century old ribbon mics were used, which despite having some kind of mystique in some circles, are really not very good microphones, compared to contemporary technology. So the sound seems a little veiled, and not particularly warm audio-wise.
For those seeking escape from the electronic computer driven, manufactured artificial pop of the day, there are ever more musical antidotes. Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton have created a gem of a record, that’s honest, intimate, creative and the kind of album you’ll want to go back to frequently.
(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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