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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1715

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Barnaby Bright: The Longest Day
by George Graham

(Mishara 45 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/20/2013)

As part of what seems like a continuous stream of retro music appearing in the second decade of the 21st Century, folk-styled groups are making a definite return. That was underscored by the Grammy Award given to the band Mumford and Sons. But there are numerous other interesting groups who have been emerging recently. They span sounds running from traditional-style acoustic folk to more electric bands that also incorporate banjos, mandolins and the like. And among the emerging groups has been a spate of family bands -- either siblings or spouses. It has often been observed that such family groups can be particularly strong on vocal harmonies, with people in some cases growing up singing together.

This week we have the latest recording by a husband-wife group who are inspired by the classic folk-duo style but add their own slightly more contemporary flavor. They call themselves Barnaby Bright, and their new third release is titled The Longest Day.

Barnaby Bright are Nathan and Rebecca Bliss, a couple who are based in New York. Their bio says that they come from very different musical backgrounds and are separated in age by a decade. Nathan studied jazz sax at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Becky has a degree in vocal performance. Their group name comes from a medieval reference to the summer solstice, quoting a proverb in "The day they called Barnaby Bright / was the longest and shortest at night." And that inspired the title to their new CD. They released their first album called Wake the Hero in 2009 and it soon began to attract attention. They won the New York Song Circle competition, and some excerpts of their music have found their way into the soundtracks of hit commercial television shows such as "ER." They followed with a EP in 2010 called Gravity, and have been touring extensively. Their live shows include a whole host of instrumentation they draw upon. But the new CD The Longest Day has some guest players.

The Longest Day is probably their best yet, with songs that are both lyrically and musically interesting, with largely acoustic instrumentation, and Becky Bliss' fine vocals primarily at the center Both Blisses contribute to the composing, both jointly and separately. For a presumably happily married couple, they write a number of songs about breaking up, unfaithfulness, and loss, plus some more conventional love-songs. Becky Bliss plays mainly keyboards, while Nathan Bliss is the multi-instrumentalist on guitar, bass, banjo, ukulele and even some horns. The added players include more conventional instrumentation like bass and drums, but cellos appear on a number of tracks, and there is even a turntable scratcher credited on two of the tunes.

The CD opens with one of its sad songs. Old Coats, about a house and an old long-married couple, in which the wife dies and the husband soon follows. The piece starts in an atmospheric mode. <<>> But they crank it up to give a decidedly more contemporary sound. <<>>

Another song of parting is called Made Up Of. In this case it's about a couple who separated. There is a prominent cello part played by Sascha Groschang. <<>>

Conjuring another outstanding contemporary folk duo, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, is a Nathan Bliss composition called Highway 9. It sounds like an old traditional murder ballad, but in this case it's about a hit and run in which a boy is killed. <<>>

While Becky Bliss is the dominant singer in this duo on the album, Nathan Bliss gets some lead vocal time on his song Gravity. It's another high quality piece of writing. <<>>

One of the most musically attractive tracks has lyrics that are rather the opposite. Castle Rock is a joint composition by Mr. and Mrs. Bliss about an unfaithful spouse carrying on an affair. <<>>

A more traditional love song is called I Love You Softly which is given an old-fashioned sound with ukuleles providing the backdrop. <<>>

With a somewhat more produced sound is a joint composition by the Blisses called Home. Becky Bliss shows a little more of her wide vocal range on the track. <<>>

The CD ends with an interesting piece, a traditional Celtic tune called Donal Ogue, which the Blisses said was inspired by the Middle-Eastern-influenced vocalist Sheila Chandra. The drone-like accompaniment is provided by a harmonium -- a pump organ -- while Becky Bliss puts in a memorable vocal performance. <<>>

The Longest Day, the new third release by the husband-wife duo Barnaby Bright is an excellent example of the revival of folk-influenced groups going on right now. Becky and Nathan Bliss bring a degree of thoughtful eclecticism to their stylistic blend, with interesting combinations of instrumental sounds, high quality composing and lyric writing, and Becky Bliss' often very-impressive vocals. This recording is rather more wide-ranging than their predecessors, and it works very well. Every track has something interesting and engaging to offer, while still being rather understated.

We'll give the CD a rare grade "A" for sound quality. The mix is very well done, with the right combination of warmth, ambience, and atmospheric sound, when required. The mix can be nicely subtle at times. But perhaps most notable about the recording is that it actually has a decent dynamic range, it can span soft to loud. It's not overly compressed to be screaming loud, which is extremely rare these days. In fact there is a note in the CD liner package recommending listening on a good pair of headphones, in which the subtleties of the recording can be better appreciated.

One does not have to look far these days to find emerging folk-influenced groups, many of them outstanding. Barnaby Bright's new CD shows them to be among the top rank on the scene.

(c) Copyright 2013 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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