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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1610

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Hey Mavis: Red Wine
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/8/2010)

There's an interesting kind of folk revival going on. In a bit of a reprise of the 1960s folk scene, a number of younger performers are taking up traditional folk songs. But there are also a number of groups who are using traditional instruments and styles, such as old-timey and pre-bluegrass sounds, and using that as a basis for new original music.

This sort of thing actually went back to the early 1990s with the Upstate New York band the Horseflies. In more recent years, we have seen some excellent examples with the bands Crooked Still, the Duhks and the duo of Bill Evans and Megan Lynch. This time we have another band whose principle instruments are banjo, fiddle and bass and who play interesting original music. They call themselves Hey Mavis, and their new debut recording is called Red Wine.

Hey Mavis are an Ohio-based trio that formed in a somewhat unusual manner for a pop band -- they were assembled as artists in residence at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The founder was Ed Caner, a gentleman who divides his time between being a lecturer in physics at Case Western Reserve University and playing violin in supporting roles for performers ranging from Luciano Pavarotti to Smokey Robinson to Wayne Newton. He has also written two instructional books on fiddling. With Hey Mavis he is listed as playing a "viola profunda." The other two members have performed extensively with the all-female harmony group the Rhondas. Principal songwriter Laurie Michelle Caner, probably related, is a native of Detroit and plays the banjo, as well as doing songwriting workshops at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and elsewhere. Rounding out the group is Texas native Sarah Benn, who plays acoustic bass, though she started on trumpet and came from a musical family which included a great grandmother who was in an all-female Gospel group called the Ladonia Trio in the 1930s.

Last year, Hey Mavis contributed a song to a regional Christmas compilation album. Producer Don Dixon, known for his work with REM and the Smithereens, heard Hey Mavis and agreed to produce their album. He added a few rock and roll touches, including his drums, and the result is an interesting hybrid with Ms. Caner's clawhammer-style banjo playing giving a traditional texture while there is often a pop-influenced bounce to the songs. The lyrics are mostly love songs, both happy and sad, but there are also hints of a traditional style of writing. The two women do lead vocals and often blend their voices in a traditional folk style, but there are lots of contemporary ingredients, so the sound is always interesting, neither all-traditional nor pop.

Opening is a piece called Red Light, a kind of playful love song that uses traffic signals among its metaphors. It's a great example of he group's mix of pop and traditional sounds with the banjo and fiddle. <<>>

With a more traditional flavor in both lyrics and music is the original song Tell Me Lover True. <<>> Eddie Caner get to solo on his viola profunda. <<>>

While most of the songs were written by Laurie Michelle Caner, there are two compositions by Sarah Benn. One is set in her native state, Texas, Second Chances. It's another creative blend of traditional elements with pop, and nicely done. <<>>

One of the most distinctive tracks on the CD is If I Want To, a love song with a vaguely occult bent and an atmospheric sound. <<>>

The title track Red Wine is another distinctive blend of the old-timey with the spacey. Eddie Caner's string instruments are highlighted. <<>>

Bassist Sarah Benn's other composition is a lighthearted, or perhaps slightly cynical look at the music business. New Seattle is the story of a former bandmate who makes it big. <<>>

One of the more musically interesting pieces is Bring Back, which defies the old timey tradition of simple music by getting into some tricky rhythms in its exploration of parting and hope for reunion. <<>>

If there were such a thing as old-timey punk, the song Jeans would be it. The lyrics are also a blend of some traditional touches with the contemporary. <<>>

Red Wine the new debut album by the Ohio-based group Hey Mavis is an enjoyable and creative recording by a group whose style, I suppose, could be called, rather oxymoronically, "neo-old-timey." Their original music combines both traditional and contemporary influences with their rock energy level contrasting with their instrumentation that evokes Appalachian folk. The result is a fun blend that may be clever enough to appeal to both traditional folk and contemporary alternative rock fans.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The liner notes point out that Don Dixon used no computers in the mixing of the album, a rarity these days. The acoustic instruments are generally well-recorded, but the dynamic range is restricted by the usual excessive volume compression which afflicts most pop CDs these days.

A couple generations ago, people like Bob Dylan started using electric instruments to make folk music rock. Now Hey Mavis and other contemporary groups are in a sense rocking out on traditional instruments.

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