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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1753

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Bigtree Bonsai: Awoken
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/18/2013)

The music that those of us with long memories called "folk rock" back in the day, seems to be making another comeback. Part of the roots rock scene which grew out of a reaction to the synthesizer-based sounds of the commercial pop scene, the new folk-rockers are basically roots rockers who tend to bring acoustic guitars and sometimes other folk instruments into the equation. The commercial and Grammy-award success of the British band Mumford & Sons has no doubt inspired a lot of others, but it has also been a case that a lot of groups are seeming to gravitate to the sound anyway. In this review series, we have spotlighted albums by The Dunwells, also from the UK, and from this side of the Atlantic, Good Old War, and Harper Blynn, and Busby Marou from Australia. This week, we have another worthwhile group to add to the ranks of the 21st Century folk rockers, Bigtree Bonsai. Their new debut full-length recording is called Awoken.

Bigtree Bonsai are a quintet from Minneapolis, who according to their web biography "re-formed" in 2010. They bring a sound that was influenced by several musical eras. The members cite earlier generation groups including the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor and The Band, through Ryan Adams and Wilco to more contemporary groups like Dawes, Blitzen Trapper and the Lone Bellow. They bring the classic instrumentation including strumming acoustic guitars, sometimes jangly electric guitars in the folk-rock style, and some classic rock organ. Also absorbed from the earlier-era folk rockers is a penchant for strong multi-part vocal harmonies. It's a nice combination, especially when used to perform their intelligent original material which sounds fairly timeless while avoiding most of the cliches.

The band members names are Matthew Duea, Brandon Hagstrom, Jack Kolb-Williams, Zach Mullan and Ben Peterson, though the neither the credits on the CD nor their website says who plays, sings or wrote what. The music is credited to the whole band and the lyrics to Hagstrom and Mullan. Like the best of the roots or folk rock band albums, Awoken is a largely self-contained band recording, but there are string arrangements on a couple of the tracks.

The succinct 33-minute CD gets under way with the short title track Awoken which nicely summarizes Bigtree Bonsai's sound, running from the folky acoustic opening <<>> to where the band turns up the energy level quite a bit while still keeping their strong vocal harmonies. <<>>

One of the band's more upbeat tracks, with particularly good writing, follows. The song is called Wayside, and it leans toward the rocky side of the band's folk-rock range. <<>>

One of Bigtree Bonsai's strengths is the melodic quality of many of their songs. Back on Your Feet, with its encouraging, upbeat lyrics, shows that side of the band. <<>> But the group turns up the volume as the tune goes along. <<>>

A different facet of Bigtree Bonsai comes out on the track All That You Want which has kind of soul-influenced groove. <<>>

Another particularly appealing song in the album is Where It Grows, which also highlights the group's good sense of musical dynamics as it grows from a mostly acoustic opening section <<>> to the cranked-up latter section that they handle very nicely. <<>>

One of the more interesting pieces on Awoken is Rollin' Down the Road, which can sound like an old folk song, though the group also transforms it into a creative alternative rock piece. <<>>

I think the highlight of the album is There's No One Else, Except All of Us, which combines the most interesting and varied arrangement on the album with more of the group's positive lyrics. <<>>

The album ends with Shine a Light a pleasing acoustic track that brings out all the folkiness in the band, with introspective lyrics, and later-on the string section. <<>>

Awoken the new debut full-length recording by the Minneapolis quintet Bigtree Bonsai is an impressive album by a group that captures the spirit of the folk-rock of the past but adds their own more contemporary ingredients. Their commendable writing, both musically and lyrically, and strong vocal harmonies, combine with the live-sounding performance on the record to make for an album that is likely to have significant staying power -- music that will sound as good five or ten years from now as it does today. These guys have been able to capture the reason that good old folk rock is so timeless and cross-generational in its appeal.

For our sound quality grade, I'll be charitable and give the CD a B-minus. The CD suffers from the usual ham-handed over-compression to the point that the sound is flat and lifeless. The band's compositions and arrangements make good use of dynamics, growing from acoustic to strongly electric, but it all comes out at the same cranked-up volume. Also, the vocals are not very cleanly recorded, sounding at times like overdriven analog.

Lately, there have been a lot of interesting bands emerging from the Minnesota Twin Cities with independent releases. The oxymoronically-named Bigtree Bonsai is another one that deserves attention.

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