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(independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/28/2012)
Folk duos have a long history in music, going back to the folk boom in the 1960s. Usually, the duo appeared as such, working as a regular pairing right from the start, such as Simon & Garfunkel, Ian and Sylvia, Brewer & Shipley and Indigo Girls to name but a few. This week we have the debut release of a duo who came together after individual careers by the respective members. They are Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer, and their new CD is called Seed of a Pine.
Both Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer are based in Arizona, in the Flagstaff area. McGraw had a group called Crow Wing, and Mandy Fer released a recording under the name Mandy Ferrarini in 2010. McGraw is a folkie whose music often evokes the Western vistas where he lives. Ms. Fer is a multi-instrumentalist, playing electric as well as acoustic guitar, but also a singer-songwriter of note whose lyrical direction tends to be more toward relationships, but no less poetically oblique. The new album features separate songs written by each respective songwriter, about half and half, with McGraw writing 6 out of the 11 songs on the CD. The duo went to Chicago to record and worked with a small band, including Christopher Merrill on bass, Andrew Lauher on drums and guest backing vocalists, including notable singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey and Jeremy "JT Nero" Lindsay. A pair of string players also appear in this rather intimate, casual-sounding recording.
The material is an interesting mix. While McGraw and Fer have somewhat different songwriting styles, the pairing is a very compatible one. He is the more folky-sounding of the two, but she often adds some interesting electric guitar lines. She can also be jazzy at times. The music often tends toward minor keys and waltz rhythms which can give a melancholy texture. The lyrics can be cryptically poetic on occasion, while at others there are somewhat more conventional love songs. Sometimes the music reminds me of that of the late Dave Carter, who also worked in a duo with Tracy Grammer. Both McGraw and Fer are engaging vocalists, he the slightly weatherbeaten-sounding folkie, and she the smoother soprano. Their vocal harmonies are a nice contrast and work together quite well. but each song has a clear lead vocalist -- the composer, rather than the music being strongly harmony-oriented throughout like many folk duos.
The generous 11-song album opens with a Dave McGraw composition, So Comes the Day. The piece is fairly typical of McGraw's composing style. It's a minor-key waltz that evokes the open spaces and traveling that the lyrics imply. <<>>
Golden Grey is written and sung by Mandy Fer. The lyrics, about a relationship, also evoke a journey. Ms. Fer is on electric guitar. <<>>
Ms. Fer cranks up her electric even more on the Dave McGraw song Serotiny (May Our Music). It's an interesting lyrical mixture of another episode of rambling and being about playing music. <<>>
One of the more distinctive sets of lyrics comes on the Mandy Fer song called Grow. It's a kind of oblique love song told in the third person. The strings make their subtle appearance on this track. <<>>
The violin and cello also appear on Ms. Fer's song Forget the Diamonds which can almost be jazzy it its texture. <<>>
Dave McGraw's composition Comin' Down is one of the reasons that McGraw and Fer remind me of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, from the ornate and rather fascinating lyrical images. <<>> The track also provides an opportunity for Ms. Fer to do a guitar solo hinting at Richard Thompson. <<>>
The title track, Seed of a Pine is by McGraw, and it's also full of interesting lyrical images, in this case apparently about going back to an old home town. <<>>
A definite highlight of the album is Mandy Fer's song Once Was, which shows her jazzy side. It's another of the somewhat vague but engaging love songs on the album. <<>>
The CD ends with about the only track on which McGraw and Fer sing vocal harmonies for much of the song like an old-fashioned folk duo. It's a Dave McGraw composition called Western Sky which gets back to one of McGraw's frequent lyrical topics. <<>>
Seed of a Pine the new album by Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer, their first recording together after maintaining individual careers, is a delightful set in the high-quality singer-songwriter tradition. Each brings a somewhat different style and musical background to the table, their combination nicely supplements each other. Their vocal harmonies are quite nice, though they are not the dominant sound. The recording is a collection of individual songs by each with performance contributions by the other. Though there are some backing musicians, the CD has a rather intimate sound, which is just right for the musical mood of their songs.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." While there are a few little things that keep this from being a real audiophile recording, it does have an organic sound, as if it was recorded in one big room, rather than being assembled from overdubs and isolated instruments. And the dynamic range is decent. There's some ebb and flow and louder and softer passages.
The folk duo concept is hardly very new, but it has persisted over the years because of its great possibilities. Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer take advantage of that potential nicely on their new joint album.
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