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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1595

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Crooked Still: Some Strange Country
by George Graham

(Signature Sounds 2029 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/5/2010)

One of the various interesting trends to emerge in recent years is what I suppose could be called the neo-traditionalists. In the folk music world and even in rock, artists are reviving the old traditional songs, some of which were revived and performed back in the 1960s folk music boom, but usually very much updated. High profile performers like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp have made recordings of traditional songs, and the folk scene has given us quite a few artists and groups who have been reinventing the old songs, sometimes taking them in musically innovative directions.

This week we have the latest recording by a group who has been doing this kind of thing for about six years now, Crooked Still. They are out with Some Strange Country, their fourth release.

The band got it start as part of the prolific Boston folk scene. The members brought together diverse backgrounds, including academe. Two of the founders, vocalist Aoife O'Donovan and bassist Corey DiMario were graduates of the New England Conservatory of Music in majoring in classical music. Banjo player Gregory Liszt has a Ph.D. in biology from M.I.T. A good part of the group's distinctive sound comes from its original instrumentation, which was rather unusual -- banjo, cello, and double bass, with rarely a guitar to be heard. In 2008, their original cellist Rushad Eggleston departed and was replaced by two additional string players, cellist Tristan Claridge and Brittany Hass who plays a five-string fiddle. Crooked Still initially started out doing strictly traditional songs, and with their instrumentation that was concentrated on the low strings, they were pretty much forced to be innovative in their arrangements. The resulting sound was an interesting mix of old-timey Appalachian traditional and classical influence, with Ms. O'Donovan's high, airy vocals providing a further distinctive ingredient, and quite a contrast to the kind of style one usually associates with traditional Appalachian music.

With the added fiddle, they have a bit more flexibility, but with the wider range of the five string fiddle, Crooked Still can end up evoking the sound of a string quartet. The group is also getting adventurous in their arrangements of the songs, occasionally going into tricky rhythms, classical counterpoint, and interesting combinations of sounds. This time, the group includes four originals songs, the most on a Crooked Still album since their start, but their reworkings of the traditional songs might as well be original musical compositions. And just for good measure, they apply their approach to a Rolling Stones tune. Another innovation on this CD is the presence of some notable guest vocalists including Ricky Skaggs, Tim O'Brien and up-and-coming bluegrass singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz.

This time the band went to Charlottesville, Virginia, to record, where they were snowed in by a massive snowstorm for several days, unable even to get out of the driveway. So Ms. O'Donovan says that it made "something special happen for the last half of the session." On their last album, Brittany Hass and Tristan Claridge were new to the group and just getting settled in. By this CD they have become more active as contributors to the sound and arrangements.

Many of the traditional songs are like a lot of old folk songs that go back to before radio, TV and the movies. Their lyrics had the sex and violence to provide the entertainment.

Opening is one of those traditional songs Sometimes In This Country. The track nicely epitomizes Crooked Still's approach. Ms. O'Donovan's almost ethereal vocals float above the band's active string and banjo textures. <<>>

One of the songs with violence and treachery is Golden Vanity. The story takes place on a ship by that name and involves a cabin boy who is double-crossed by the captain, and is allowed to drown after pulling off an espionage mission on an enemy ship. Ricky Skaggs is the guest backing vocalist. <<>>

Another song with sex and mayhem is called Henry Lee, whose story line has appeared in various versions. A woman mistakenly suspects her lover of being unfaithful, and does him in. A bird informs her of the truth, and she tries to kill the bird too. This is the same story line as the song False Lady which appeared on the Karen Casey/John Doyle CD we recently reviewed, but here with quite different music. <<>>

Half of What We Know is one of the original songs, in this case written by Aoife O'Donovan. It shows the group's sophisticated musical approach. One could imagine that this tune with different instrumentation could be a rock song. <<>>

One of the tracks featuring Tim O'Brien's backing vocals is I'm Troubled, which has a more traditional sound. <<>>

Among the highlights on the CD is Calvary a Gospel tune to which the band gives a really interesting treatment with their creative arrangement including the kind of sophisticated rhythmic approach one would never hear in an old Gospel tune. <<>>

The CD ends with their Rolling Stones cover, the relatively obscure song You Got the Silver from the Let It Bleed album. Despite the acoustic treatment, Ms. O'Donovan acknowledges the origin of the song and actually sounds a little bluesy. The result in a very pleasant surprise. <<>>

Some Strange Country, the new fourth CD from the eclectic neo-traditional group Crooked Still marks a further evolution for this creative acoustic band with the distinctive instrumentation. Though the group includes more original music on this CD than on their predecessors, their reworking of the traditional songs is no less creative, and their original music still has a kind of traditional sound. Aoife O'Donovan's radiant vocals are better than ever, and the group's two more recent members are making their mark on Crooked Still's sound. Their choice of traditional material tends to run toward the more obscure, but that also adds to the sonic freshness that the CD provides.

Our grade for sound quality is an "A-minus." The recording by Gary Paczosa captures the acoustic instruments and Ms. O'Donovan's vocals well, and there are some subtly-handled studio effects to add some ambience or spaciness. But there is, as usual, a bit too much volume compression used in an effort to jack up the loudness of the CD.

Traditional songs have been making a comeback, but Crooked Still takes those songs, some of them fairly obscure to begin with, and makes them into something very much their own, and in the process provides great listening.

(c) Copyright 2010 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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