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Ordinary Elephant: Honest
by George Graham
(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/5/2018)
Acoustic folk music has been a constant presence in recent years in the back reaches of the contemporary music scene. Some alternative rock bands such as Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers have incorporated folk elements and instrumentation into their otherwise electric music. In the meantime, the acoustic singer-songwriter genre is as widespread as ever, in terms of the number of artists on the scene. As part of that, there has been an interesting revival of folk duos, usually male and female. The archetype for that is Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings. Since Welch’s debut album in 1996, which was nominated for a Grammy Award, the pair, with their sparse instrumentation and often haunting two-part vocal harmonies, has been the inspiration for quite a few acts on the scene these days, including the Honey Dewdrops, The Lark and the Loon, Oliver the Crow, Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton, and several others. This week we have another creative folk duo, in this case spouses. They call themselves Ordinary Elephant, and their new second album is called Honest.
Ordinary Elephant are Crystal Hariu-Damore and Pete Damore. According to their biography, each had very different ongoing non-musical careers. Crystal was a veterinary cardiologist, and Pete was a computer programmer. They met at an open-mic in College Station, Texas, in 2009, and that led to both a musical collaboration and eventually their marriage. Together, they moved to Houston. They were drawn increasingly toward the music to the point that they gave up their regular careers, and for the past five years they have been living in an RV on the road full time, though Pete does maintain a career in tech, apparently staying connected. But Ms. Hariu-Damore was torn between the career she had spent years preparing for and the uncertain life of an itinerant musician. That, by the way, is addressed on one the songs on the new album.
The Damores take some cues from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, in the barebones acoustic instrumentation. She plays guitar, and he plays banjo and an octave mandolin. On the new album they are joined by some additional players to fill out the arrangements, rather subtly, with Will Kimbrough on various guitars and some keyboards, Michael Rinne on bass, and the album’s producer Neilson Hubbard on piano. Though there there are added players, the music still largely comes off an acoustic twosome. Ms. Hariu-Damore does most of the lead vocals, but there are frequent harmonies, which is one of their strengths. Lyrically, the material is fairly straightforward, and in the folky tradition, many of the songs have a message or story. There no regular love songs to speak of on the album.
Opening is a piece called I Come From which considers one’s place of origin. Ms. Haliu-Damore says that she wrote it for her mother, who sill lives in southern Louisiana, where Crystal grew up. <<>>
Scars We Keep is a song with contemporary relevance in the context of the rise of intolerance and overt prejudice in the Trump era. It’s nicely done, with the musical accompaniment given a melancholy sound. <<>>
A trip to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington inspired the song The War, considering not only the names on the memorial, but the veterans of that war who still face difficulties coping with its aftermath. <<>>
One of the more interesting tracks on the album is Harriet about horse who was ridden into battle in some past war. The musical setting with its minor key, nicely pairs with the mood of the lyrics. <<>>
When the Damores decided to make their home on the road in an RV, they had to decide what to take and what to get rid of. They created a song called Worth the Weight [spell] since the RV would only hold so much weight, and that was the inspiration for evaluating a lot of things in life and whether they were worth their weight. <<>>
Jenny and James is the story of two people whose relationship was not condoned by those around them and their social norms, and they of course, persisted finding strength. <<>>
Along the same lines is Rust Right Through an autobiographical song which considers the career move that the duo made from secure professional day jobs to being musical nomads. <<>>
Another song that addresses the current state of the world is If I Am Being Honest which asks how much of the situation should be shared with children. <<>>
The album ends with a quiet song called Hope to Be That Happy which was inspired by Crystal’s grandmother who endured a lot of difficulty in her later years but maintained a sunny outlook. <<>>
Ordinary Elephant’s new second album Honest is a thoroughly enjoyable and tasteful recording by another folky acoustic male-female duo, in the tradition of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Crystal Hariu-Damore and Pete Damore, and their subtle supporting musicians have struck up an excellent balance between their sparse instrumentation but appealing vocals with intelligent lyrics that avoid the cliches. Their music can be simultaneously plaintive yet warm and inviting.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A,” with the sonic approach to the mixing capturing the nuances of their music, with a fairly warm, intimate sound.
This is a good time for folky duos, especially of the co-ed variety. Ordinary Elephant have distinguished themselves as one of the best on the current scene.
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