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The Mae Trio: Housewarming
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/7/2015)
In the past few months, I found myself choosing for this album review series a fair number of recordings that feature strings and classical orchestral instrumentation, often used in creative ways, or well-integrated into a more conventional orchestral setting. This week we have another one, and once again, there is a creative twist – strings and ukuleles. The group is called the Mae Trio and their debut full-length album is called Housewarming.
The Mae Trio are three young Australian women, two of them sisters, who started playing as a band in 2011. Maggie Rigby plays banjo, ukulele, guitar and a little marimba. Her sister Elsie Rigby plays the uke plus violin. Rounding out the trio is Anita Hillman, who plays cello and bass. All three do vocals, and all three write for the group. Their sound is distinctive and quite appealing with ukulele sometimes paired with a pizzicato violin, or with the banjo. Their tight vocal harmonies can have an ethereal quality, and their songs are lyrically literate and frequently intriguing. Their style also defies ready categorization, The group have found audiences playing at Celtic festivals, but that is not what they are about. One can infer a little Appalachian folk from the banjo style, but the lyrics are not in that tradition either. Though the trio is Australian, they sing in what seems more of a Scottish accent, which adds a further interesting touch.
The Mae Trio’s compositions include the expected love songs, but there are pieces that get into allegorical references with the lyrics revolving around symbolic animals. Their arrangements, though outwardly simple, often become intriguing from the distinctive instrumentation. They are occasionally helped by a small group of additional musicians, but they mainly work just as the trio. It’s a fairly generous album with 13 songs, 12 of which were new originals.
Leading off is one of the originals, by Maggie Rigby, called Caroline. The group’s distinctive sound with the ukulele and cello provides the backdrop for intriguing lyrics. <<>>
That is followed by a tune by Maggie Rigby called The Beat which brings in the banjo paired with the cello in a charmingly distinctive way. <<>>
With a more-conventional-sounding guitar is a tune by Maggie Rigby called Back to the Shore, a pretty waltz with lyrics with a kind of nautical setting. <<>>
The title track, Housewarming is more upbeat in sound and musical mood. A composition by Elsie Rigby, the piece is quite charming. <<>>
The one tune on the album by cellist Anita Hillman is called Yours for the Keeping Interestingly, the cello is largely absent save for a short solo at the end. It’s one of the songs using animals in an allegorical way in the lyrics. <<>>
A piece called The Rain Song by Maggie Rigby, is an interesting combination of influences with lyrics that make reference to the end of a drought. And drought conditions have affected part of their native Australia, so maybe that’s where it came from. Of course, here is it’s turned into an analogy. <<>>
Another of the more distinctive tracks is World Of You Own which with its two ukuleles makes it sound a bit Hawaiian, except for the reggae influenced rhythm. The trio is joined by some a couple of the guest musicians on drums and guitar. <<>
The CD ends with the one cover on the album, Lately by Kate Rusby, which the Mae Trio does very nicely a cappella. <<>>
Housewarming, the new debut release by the young Australian group The Mae Trio is a delightful recording by a group that mixes orchestral string instruments with banjo and ukulele and comes up with a pleasing combination that is not at all as you would expect for such a lineup. Their songs are musically interesting and lyrically literate. While they are occasionally joined by a few supporting musicians, their surprisingly full sound comes from just the three of them with their acoustic instruments, and of course, their nice vocal harmonies.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The recording treats the acoustic instruments well and has reasonable sonic clarity. The vocals sound a bit more compressed than they should be and don’t have the kind of airy quality that their music seems to call for, but overall, it’s somewhat better than average even among acoustic albums, the overall dynamic range is decent in this day and age where most pop CD are cranked up for maximum loudness all the the time.
Their configuration may be old and familiar, the musical format of acoustic instrumentation and vocal harmonies hardly out of the ordinary, and yet the Mae Trio has come up with a fresh-sounding and thoroughly enjoyable album.
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