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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1631

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Ari & Mia: Unruly Heart
by George Graham

(independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/23/2011)

Perhaps it's a reaction to the artifice of most contemporary commercial pop music, with its in-your-face, relentless sound, and highly processed totally phony-sounding electronically pitch-altered vocals, but there seems to be a significant revival of acoustic music with a traditional sound among younger performers -- musicians even whose parents are probably a bit young for the 1960s folk scene. While a number of these players are taking an interest in traditional songs, or the acoustic singer-songwriter-troubadour mode, there are quite a few others who are starting with traditional instrumentation and going in unconventional directions, using instruments like the cello. This week, we have another delightful recording that inhabits the eclectic acoustic mode and makes a distinctive hybrid that sounds like traditional music but has a lot of contemporary facets. It's the debut CD by the sister duo of Ariel and Mia Friedman, who appear as Ari & Mia. Their CD is called Unruly Heart.

The Friedman sisters are from the Boston area, and both have formal classical musical training. Ari mainly plays cello and wrote most of the original material. Mia plays a variety of instruments, banjo in clawhammer style, guitar, and fiddle. Instrumentally, they can resemble another Boston area group with the cello-banjo combination , Crooked Still, but even on first release, Ari & Mia have forged a distinctive sound with their very appealing vocals and sisterly harmonies. Most of the material is original, but like that of Crooked Still, Ari & Mia's new songs can sound like music from the 19th century or earlier, and indeed on a couple of pieces, they create new music for old poetry.

Also like the members of Crooked Still, the Friedman sisters comes from an academic background musically. Ariel is classically trained on cello, and both sisters are attending the New England Conservatory of Music in their Contemporary Improvisation program. And one can hear that facet of their background at times in their music, along with hints of jazz, old Gospel music, and their most prominent influence, old-time Appalachian folk. They are joined on the CD by a number of additional players, perhaps the best known of whom is Sarah Jarosz, whose own eclectic acoustic CD we reviewed in 2009. Frequently featured is Owen Marshall, who plays the guitar plus other instruments like bouzouki and harmonium. Also heard on guitar is Rebecca Wudarski, and a third Friedman sister, Shoshona does backing vocals.

The generous, nearly hour-long CD opens with a piece by Mia Friedman called Open Field that sums up the sound of Unruly Heart. It's an original song with a decidedly traditional texture, and contemporary-sounding lyrics. <<>>

The following piece is by Ariel Friedman. Hundreds of Ways is some ways a pop song in its structure, but with the group's traditional-sounding instrumentation. <<>>

The Friedman sisters do a couple of instrumental pieces on the CD. One is a pair of traditional tunes, Pig's Foot and Grub Springs. With just Ari on the cello, Mia on the fiddle and Owen Marshall on guitar, they create a very danceable sound. <<>>

Another facet of the sisters comes out on the title track, Unruly Heart, inspired by an e.e. cummings poem. They give it a vaguely jazzy, swingy sound. Ari and Mia's other sister Shoshona Friedman is heard on harmony vocal. <<>>

One of the most interesting tracks is an original piece by Mia Friedman called Across the Water. It's a kind of love song with an atmospheric sound, with the cello providing an Eastern-sounding drone at times. The piece can be quite striking in its distinctive sound and yet its simplicity. Shoshona Friedman again appears on the backing vocals. <<>>

Mia wrote a two-part piece called Montville and Rise Up. The first part is a cappella with the three Friedman sisters. <<>> Then it becomes an instrumental with a sound that conjures Eastern European or Nordic folk music. <<>>

A bit more conventionally folky is North written by Ariel. It's a celebration of a favorite vacation spot. <<>>

Ari and Mia apply their own original music to some traditional lyrics. But there is one old song that they perform, words and music, the Elizabeth Cotton folk standard Freight Train. They do very nice job. Mia's pure-sounding vocals can remind one of a jazz chanteuse. <<>> There's aslo a section in which the Friedman sisters conjure Western Swing. <<>>

Ari and Mia's new debut CD Unruly Heart is a thoroughly enjoyable recording that marks another young group venturing off into eclectic acoustic material, about 180 degrees from the contemporary commercial pop one associates with Friedman sisters' generation. Like their slightly older contemporaries, Crooked Still, Ari and Mia mix cello with Appalachian-folk-influenced music with clawhammer banjo, sometimes Gospel-like textures, and throw in jazz and even classical influence. Sometimes, their music can remind me of classical composer Aaron Copeland's approach to traditional American folk music. The result is eminently listenable and quite appealing.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The acoustic instruments and the Friedman sisters' vocals are very well recorded, clean, open and often intimate. By contemporary standards, the recording is not overly compressed, making for a decent dynamic range.

While it's hardly a dominant trend, it's nice to see growing numbers of younger generation performers venturing into eclectic acoustic music, groups like Crooked Still, Hey Mavis, The Punch Brothers, and Sarah Jarosz. Ari and Mia's new CD is another great example, with its fine musicianship, feeling for the traditional with a sense of adventurousness.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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