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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1723

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Laura Cortese: Into the Dark
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/17/2013)

For all the many singer-songwriters on the contemporary music scene, almost all of them accompany themselves either with a guitar or a piano or other keyboard. There have been a few exceptions we have occasionally featured on this series such as harpist Dee Carstensen, singer-songwriter cellists Ben Sollee and Lindsey Mac and blues singer-composer and trumpet player Al Basile. This week we have a new CD by a singer-songwriter-violinist named Laura Cortese, whose record is called Into the Dark. And unlike other composer-vocalists who mostly integrate their less-conventional instruments into the context of a more traditional band, Laura Cortese creates a distinctive sound with essentially a string ensemble with some percussion.

Laura Cortese is a native of the San Francisco area who came to Boston to study at the Berklee College of music and ended up staying in the city, becoming associated with both the folk scene and with alternative rockers. Her bio lists appearances with the great folksinger Pete Seeger, as well as playing with the rock group Band of Horses. She also formed a group with Aiofe O'Donovan from the eclectic acoustic group Crooked Still, and among others Jefferson Hamer in a group called Pine. After Ms. Cortese released couple of independent EPs, Into the Dark is her first full-length recording. For it, she recruited a number of eclectic string players who blur the distinction between fiddle playing and violin -- sometimes it has a definite classical chamber group sound, while at others, it resembles traditional American folk fiddle playing. Sometimes, both styles of playing can be heard on a single track. The string ensemble also extends to cellos and double basses, which Ms. Cortese sometimes plays herself. The songs are mainly original pieces but there are two traditional songs and a couple of covers which Ms. Cortese reinvents. It's all very nicely done with good quality composition, and the combination of sounds makes for often intriguing listening that nevertheless has a vaguely familiar texture.

Among the string players joining her on the album are Brittany Haas of Crooked Still, plus Hanneke Cassel, Mariel Vandersteel and Natalie Haas on the violins with Jocie Adams on the cello, plus occasional appearances by woodwind and brass players, and bits of guitar, keyboards and even drums, though they are rare on this CD. There are also some singer-songwriters who make guest appearances on backing vocals, including Jennifer Kimball, Jefferson Hamer, whose own CD with Anais Mitchell we featured recently on this series, and Scottish singer-songwriter Kris Drever. Interestingly, in the CD's list of credits, Ms. Cortese essentially reveals the side of playing she comes down on, listing herself as playing "fiddle" rather than violin, as other of the players were. She also plays some viola and acoustic bass as well on the CD.

The opening track provides an introduction to Ms. Cortese's distinctive sound with a string ensemble that includes both folk fiddle and classical violin sounds in the same group. The song called For Catherine is about a young woman from her hometown who was sexually assaulted by a group of high school boys. It's a quite effective musical mixture. <<>>

The title piece Into the Dark is a distinctive love song which epitomizes the imaginative sound of the CD with a sometimes ominous texture that can also reach a kind of rock intensity with the strings. <<>>

Another original song called Brown Wrinkled Dress is lyrically like an old ballad with a love triangle and a death. The string ensemble is able to channel some of the emotions and drama of the lyrics. <<>>

One of the cover tunes, called Life Is Good Blues, by Laura Viers, is another example of the string ensemble on the album conveying a kind of rock energy. <<>>

A rather different mood is expressed in an original Cortese composition called Take Your Time, which is a kind of pastoral love song. <<>>

A track called Train on the Island is listed as a traditional song. It's another nice mixture of folk fiddle sounds with the classical-style ensemble arrangement. <<>>

An interesting departure from the general stylistic direction of the album is a tune called Heel to Toe by one Sean Staples. It's done in a rather different style in which the fiddle is also important, Cajun. <<>>

The CD ends with another traditional song, Lay Me Low which has about as much guitar as you'll hear on this album. It features Ms. Cortese's fiddle in a more traditional folk mode. <<>>

Fiddler and singer-songwiter Laura Cortese's new CD Into the Dark is a distinctive and enjoyable recording that features a string ensemble playing styles from folk to close to rock, in place of the regular guitars of typical folkie albums. It's also a larger group of string players than one usually hears in this kind of thing as well. But the result is outstanding and memorable. Ms. Cortese is a worthy songwriter both musically and lyrically, and a pleasing vocalist, but it's her fiddle work and collaboration with other string players that makes this CD such a standout. There have been other singer-songwriters whose main instrument is neither the guitar nor keyboard, but most of the time the conventional instruments still form the basis for the sound. But Ms. Cortese centers the whole record around the string ensemble with any guitars being relegated to infrequent supplementary roles. And it's all very nicely done, by an artist whose eclectic musical experience allowed her to create a project like this and have it sound like a real band instead of a kind of musical curiosity.

Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." The strings are sometimes given some studio effects but they are subtle and effective. The vocals are well recorded, but the dynamic range, how the recording maintains the difference between loud and soft, was impaired by the all-too-common practice of compressing the sound to make it artificially louder.

Folkie fiddler or eclectic progressive violinist, Laura Cortese assumes both roles on her imaginative new release.

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