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The Graham Album Review #1906

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Kronos Quartet: Folk Songs
by George Graham

(Nonesuch Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/26/2017)

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the artifice of synthesizer and computer-driven commercial pop music, but the number of contemporary artists who are using classical string instruments seems to be growing recently. Popular alternative artist Ben Folds had an interesting album with a chamber ensemble recently. There are violinist singer-writers Andrew Bird and Kishi Bashi. And two weeks ago we reviewed the latest project by blues harmonica man and vocalist Corky Siegel with his now long-running group Chamber Blues, incorporating a classical string quartet.

This week we have another project bringing together a classical string ensemble with more contemporary artists. In this case, it’s the classical group’s project bringing on the guest artists. It’s the latest from the long-running and highly eclectic Kronos Quartet. It bears a rather succinct and descriptive title. It’s called Folk Songs.

The Kronos Quartet formed in Seattle in 1973, but has been associated with San Francisco since 1978. They were founded by violinist David Harrington with John Sheba on the other violin. They remain with the group after a somewhat rotating cast on viola and cello. They set out to do contemporary classical works, some quite eclectic, and eventually a number of orchestral composers created works for the quartet. Early on, for their second album in 1985, they did a recording of Thelonious Monk pieces, and later one with compositions by the jazz pianist Bill Evans. The next year, their eponymous album featured pieces by both Philip Glass and Jimi Hendrix, with their memorable and pioneering string quartet version of Purple Haze. Over dozens of recordings, they have played ancient music, music by the contemporary minimalists, tango, African music, and music from Bollywood films, as well as music from the Icelandic pop group Sigur Ros.

This latest project from Kronos features traditional folk songs from both sides of the Atlantic, and they are joined by four different vocalists, Natalie Merchant, known for her work with 10,000 Maniacs, and who in more recent years has been performing some traditional folk songs; Rhiannon Giddens, the versatile vocalist known for her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops; English folk vocalist Olivia Chaney and American alternative folk artist Sam Amidon. True to form, Kronos Quartet’s performance and arrangements are quite eclectic, often defying what one might expect a string quartet to sound like on a folk song, with most of the arrangements being neither traditional fiddle style nor classical chamber in sound. The album can often be quite striking, with the way the quartet can create a spooky atmosphere to the traditional lyrics which are often about death and tragedy, or at least broken hearts. For many of the tracks, the guest artists are also heard on their instrument with Sam Amidon on guitar, for instance, and Olivia Chaney playing a harmonium, a pump organ that can add to the eerieness at times. Each of the guest vocalists is featured in two pieces which are separated into essentially two halves of the album, like two sides on an LP.

Folk Songs opens Oh Where with one of the tracks featuring Sam Amidon, who is perhaps the most rustic-sounding singer of the four on the album. It’s a traditional song of a brokenhearted guy whose true love fled. Amidon is heard on guitar complementing the lugubrious string arrangement by Nico Muhly, whose own album with vocalist Teitur we recently reviewed. <<>>

One of the most strikingly beautiful pieces on the album is Ramblin’ Boy a British Isles folk song with Olivia Chaney singing and playing harmonium. It’s another traditional song of a broken heart. <<>>

It’s not long before these old folk songs get into tragic stories. Natalie Merchant sings The Butcher’s Boy, in which the protagonist does herself in when her true love is seen with another. The Kronos Quartet plays an appropriately melancholy accompaniment. <<>>

Rhiannon Giddens had become a very versatile and charismatic vocalist. Her treatment of Factory Girl is very memorable. It’s another song ending in death, in this case about a girl that a young man was trying to win, only to have her perish in a disaster at the factory in which she worked. The Kronos Quartet plays an arrangement by Gabe Witcher of the Punch Brothers that captures the tragic mood of the lyrics. <<>>

Between the two groups of four tracks by the different vocalists is a quirky instrumental called Last Kind Words composed by one Geeshie Wiley. The Kronos Quartet shows their ability to evade any common preconceptions of what string music is supposed to sound like, either as folk fiddle music or as classical.<<>>

A bit of a departure is a piece in French whose title translates as Mountain How High You Are, sung by Olivia Chaney, with an interesting 11-beat rhythm. <<>>

Natalie Merchant sings Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier, which has a distinctly American quality, which the string quartet captures in this nice performance. <<>>

The album ends with a piece called Lullaby again featuring Rhiannon Giddens. It seems like a nice lullaby to end the album of mostly sad or tragic songs, but the lyrics have a twist toward the end, singing a lullaby to a baby who is not the daughter of the mother in the song. <<>>

Folk Songs the new album by the Kronos Quartet, who have been stretching the boundaries of the string quartet format for over 40 years, is a fascinating recording that combines guest vocals with often haunting arrangements of traditional tunes. There are three different arrangers who provided the parts that Kronos played, and each of the arrangements has some interesting twist, and none of them does what you might expect, usually sounding like neither a bunch of fiddlers nor a classical chamber group. Naturally, this virtuosic quartet plays with spirit and imagination. The choice of vocal guests is also interesting, given their diverse backgrounds.

Our grade for sound quality is an “A-minus.” The quartet is recorded well, though not with the traditional distant-mic classical technique. The vocals are warm and clean. The dynamic range is better than most pop albums these days, but there is some compression that detracts from the way the recording reproduces the ebb and flow of the music.

About as far distant as one can get from the computer driven, Auto-Tune-vocal infested commercial pop of the day is a classical string quartet performing traditional folk songs. That alone is enough to mark this album as notable. But the quality of the performances and creative arrangements make it something really special.

(c) Copyright 2017 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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