Index of Album Reviews | George Graham's Home Page | What's New on This Site

The Graham Album Review #2178

CD graphic
Click on CD Cover for Audio Review in streaming mp3 format

Barbaro: About the Winter

(Storysound Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/13/2023)

As I have observed in other recent album reviews, this seems to be a good time for folk-influenced acoustic music, with musicians of the alternative rock generation going for instruments that don’t need to plug in, and bringing in banjos, fiddles, mandolins and the like. This week we have another worthy example. It’s the new second release by a Minnesota-based group called Barbaro, an album named About the Winter.

Barbaro brings together an interesting set of influences, with the co-founders coming from the bluegrass world, but adding two members with a classical background. The group began in 2017 as a duo with bluegrass-oriented musicians Kyle Shelstad on guitar, who also serves as the principal songwriter, and banjo player Isaac Sammis. They named the group Barbaro after a famous racing horse who won the Kentucky Derby, but soon had to be euthanized after suffering injuries at his next race. Since then, Barbaro’s personnel has been evolving, with Sammis departing after the birth of his second son, and bassist Jason Wells joining, after having a background almost exclusively in classical music. But he was intrigued by Barbaro’s sound. And they were joined by another musician who worked mainly in the classical world, Rachel Calvert on violin, though she also had performed with some folk groups. Barbaro released an EP in 2018 and soon began to receive attention and awards, such as the John Hartford Memorial Festival band contest, and one from the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association. Earlier this year, they were chosen for a US State Department tour doing performances and workshops in Qatar, Turkey and Bulgaria.

For this new album, they enlisted producer Brian Joseph, who has worked with Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and the eclectic chamber ensemble Ymusic. At Jospeh’s studio, they drew on a bunch of instruments on the premises. Also founding member Isaac Sammis returned for the sessions, playing banjo on all the tracks. The result is an interesting and gratifying mix, of the traditional with more left-field sonic ingredients. Kyle Shelstad’s vocal style draws on alternative rock, sometimes reminiscent of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, while his lyric writing is intriguingly inscrutable. Shelstad handled the vocals on their last album, but he wrote songs for the new rekease with Ms. Calvert in mind, and she does several. With all the eclecticism, the result can be reminiscent of the recent album by Nickel Creek, though with a bit less instrumental virtuosity. And on a two of the tracks, they trade the bluegrass tradition of short pithy songs for extended pieces with jam sections. The tunes can run from edgy to spacey.

Opening is one of the spacey interludes, Apples to Apples, which spotlights the band’s intriguing mix of influences. <<>>

A bit more toward what I suppose could be called acoustic alternative, is a song called Gardens. The sonic contrasts between the melodic banjo and the more urgent-sounding beat, makes for an intriguing sonic stew. <<>>

Showing a bit of their bluegrass side is The Lil Sweaters, though the lyrics are hardly traditional style. <<>>

Rachel Calvert does the lead vocal on Subtle Hints, a multi-part piece which provides a chance for a layered overdubbed fiddle solo. <<>>

Ms. Calvert also does the lead vocal on one of the album’s most melodically attractive tracks One x One. <<>>

One of the lengthy jam tracks is Subpoena Colada. After the seemingly stream of consciousness lyrics <<>> the track goes into its intriguingly atmospheric instrumental section, with Ms. Calvert doing a little classical-style violin technique. <<>>

The track Let’s Talk About the Winter from which the album title came, is another extended jam in a more contemplative, almost ethereal texture, with Shelstad and Calvert alternating vocals. <<>>

The album ends with an instrumental track called Ike’s Farewell, which would be like an old timely fiddle tune but for the vaguely unsettling sonic texture of added sounds. <<>>

About the Winter, the new album by the Minnesota group Barbaro, is another intriguing example of a kind of smashup between acoustic instrumentation and bluegrass influence with alternative rock sensibility, made more interesting by the classical background of two of the members. Though group co-founder Isaac Sammis has departed, he returned to play his banjo on all the tracks, underscoring the bluegrass influence on this album. Barbaro shares the acoustically instrumented eclecticism of Nickel Creek and Chris Thile, while bringing in some different sonic ambiances in the studio. It’s all done quite well, and producer Brian Joseph deserves credit for a good balance between the traditional and the more unconventional, though almost everything remains acoustic on the album.

Our grade for audio quality is about a B+ plus, for too much compression on the acoustic instruments resulting in something of a loss of clarity in addition to the dynamics, though the other effects like the atmospheric quality are well-handled.

For me, and old folk fans, it’s nice that a new generation of eclectic folk and acoustic groups, are making themselves heard. Barbaro’s new album About the Winter is a great example.

(c) Copyright 2023 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
This review may not be copied to another Web site without written permission.

<<>> indicates audio excerpt played in produced radio review

Comments to George:

To Index of Album Reviews | To George Graham's Home Page. | What's New on This Site.

This page last updated December 17, 2023