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The Sweet Colleens: 10 Mona Lisas
by George Graham
(Independent Release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/23/2019)
Thanks to the popularity of groups like Mumford and Son and the Avett Brothers, folk-rock is enjoying a revival in popularity, often bringing in traditional instruments like fiddles, mandolins and banjos. I supposed it could be seen as a kind of reaction against, or perhaps an antidote to, computer-generated, digitally manipulated commercial pop.
This week we have a group from Minnesota who combine folk rock with Celtic influence and a good helping of fiddle to create an attractive blend of original music and arrangements of traditional tunes. The band is called The Sweet Colleens, which certainly sounds like a group of Irish women, but they are five guys from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, who have released their fifth album called 10 Mona Lisas.
The Sweet Colleens got their start back in 2000 when they began working together, made a collection of demo recordings and put them out. They released more formal full albums in 2005, 2010 and 2013. Most of the material on 10 Mona Lisas was done in 2017, but they have recently begun promoting the album nationwide.
The group’s front-man is Jeremy Greenhouse, whose instrument is the fiddle, but the band has a solid rock rhythm section with Dave Bade on bass, also some cello and mandolin, and drummer Will Loescher, who certainly plays like a rock drummer. Rounding out the group are Pete Sandvik who plays accordion and keyboards, and Scott Keever who handles guitar – electric and acoustic – and Dobro, which is often heard on the album.
Jeremy Greenhouse is credited with composing the band’s original music, but they also draw on traditional Irish tunes, plus the work of Irish musician Andy Irvine and a little Woody Guthrie. The material can be quite electric at times, and more folky at others. But even when the instrumentation is otherwise acoustic, there is a driving rock drum sound that keeps the energy level up. In that way, they are hewing to a similar approach as the alternative influenced bands, though the Sweet Colleens are somewhat more traditional in their sound.
Leading off is a piece called Christopher, one of the more conventional sounding pieces on the album. With a lyrical reference to Superman, I’m guessing that it was a song dedicated to the actor Christopher Reeve. <<>>
That is followed by a very electric version of a traditional sea shanty called Heave Away, which the band performs cranked up to 10, with fiddle, accordion and penny-whistle joining the electric guitar and rock rhythm section. <<>>
Another electric folk-rock track is an original song called Pyromania, which is described as based on a true story from Jeremy Greenhouse’s Canadian hometown. The band again combines the traditional sounding elements, including Greenhouse’s fiddle with the electric band. <<>>
The album features a couple of love songs. A particularly appealing set of lyrics forms the basis of Walks in the Room in which a man expresses his love for his wife over the decades. <<>>
As you might expect from a group with Celtic influence, there are a couple of instrumentals on the album. Boy Brady is a medley of four traditional jigs which shows Jeremy Greenhouse’s great fiddle chops, and is done with the band’s customary energy level. <<>>
Also from the traditional world is Black Eyed Suzy, which the band does at a frenetic pace.
The band covers a song by the great Irish singer-songwriter Andy Irvine, Never Tire of the Road, but which is set in the USA. <<>> With the song being about traveling in America, the Sweet Colleens decided to weave in the classic Woody Guthrie song This Land Is Your Land. <<>>
There is one track that is stylistically a little out of character from the rest of the album, a love song called Smile in There, which can sound almost like rockabilly or country. But the band acquits themselves well on it. The song’s lyrics are the source for the album’s title “10 Mona Lisas.” <<>>
The album ends with another traditional Irish tune, Botany Bay which features a guest vocal from Katie MacMahon from the Riverdance troupe. <<>>
The Minnesota based group the Sweet Colleens, bill themselves as “fiddle-fueled accordion-infused Celti-Cajun folk pop,” which is a pretty good description of their rather wide-ranging mix of rock with folk elements from both sides of the Atlantic. Their latest album 10 Mona Lisas has a nice mix of their appealing lyrically-straightforward original songs, along with traditional material, with the latter generally served up in electric style. The musicianship is first rate and their arrangements and record’s production are tasteful all around.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The sound is clean and studio effects are kept to a minimum. And the recording nicely handles the mix of the electric and the acoustic instruments, without the former overwhelming the latter.
Fiddles, banjos, and the like are definitely making inroads again in electric music as the folk-rock revival continued to unfold. The Sweet Colleens stand as a very likable example.
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