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Pharis & Jason Romero: Bet on Love
by George Graham
(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/24/2020)
In a world where so much pop music is being generated largely by computers, there has been a kind of reaction to that in the form of numerous acoustic folk groups appearing with interesting new recordings. Sometimes it’s rather stark with just guitars and vocals, though the style of the music can be more toward alternative than traditional. And increasingly, co-ed duo groups have been making their appearance, most often with a pair of spouses. The modern archetype for that is Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings, who brought to public attention their very traditional-sounding music that was actually original compositions that seemed as if they came from the Appalachian hollows a hundred years ago. We have featured some other of these pairings on this album review series, including the duos of Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer; Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton; the twosomes Oliver the Crow, and Ordinary Elephant, to name a few.
This week we have another folk duo who create original music and imbue it with a strongly traditional sound, Pharis and Jason Romero, and their new release is called Bet on Love.
Pharis and Jason Romero are from British Columbia and met in 2007, drawn together by, according to their bio, “some scratchy old records and a custom banjo.” They first recorded together in 2009 as the Haints Old Time String Band, but have maintained a duo since 2010. Bet On Love is their sixth album together. Along the way, they won two Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of Grammys, and were guests on the former Prairie Home Companion show on Public Radio. In addition, they operate a banjo shop and have made custom banjos for people like Jerry Douglas and Ricky Skaggs. Jason also works as a banjo instructor and Pharis is artistic director for a vocal workshop called Voice Works.
The new album distills the neo-traditional sound of the duo, with old-time style banjo playing, including on a gourd banjo that Jason made, and the kind of clear, open vocal harmonies of old-timey music. On the album they are joined by John Reischman on mandolin, well-known in the acoustic world, and Patrick Metzger on bass. They recorded Bet on Love mostly live in their banjo shop, so the sound is intimate and understated. The lyrics could easily have come from traditional songs, with some sentimentality about home and one’s significant other. There’s also a song about a sailor, another nod to traditional songs.
Opening is a track called Hometown Blues, which is about what the title says, but with some complications. Pharis does the lead vocals with the full instrumental quartet appearing. <<>>
New Day has a more traditional old-timey sound, hinting at old Gospel songs. The duo’s vocal harmonies are simultaneously sweet and melancholy. <<>>
Jason Romero plays his gourd banjo on Roll On My Friend on which he does the lead vocal. <<>>
The duo shows their Gillian Welch influence on the Romero original song Right in the Garden. It works nicely. <<>>
The Romeros include an instrumental piece, New Caledonia which also features the dark sound of Romero’s gourd-type banjo. It give the track an almost historical sound. <<>>
The title track Bet On Love is another mostly duo song with vocal harmonies, with a positive lyrical message. <<>>
One of the highlights of the album is the very traditional-sounding original song called Old Chatelaine, a love song involving a sailor. <<>>
A Bit Old School is a song whose title rather epitomizes the album’s direction, done with two guitars. <<>>
Bet on Love the new sixth album by the Canadian duo Pharis and Jason Romero, is another in the growing number of recordings by acoustic artists turning to traditional folk for their inspiration. The album is all original songs, so there is no actual traditional music on it, but it certainly has an authentic, old-timey sound from the old fashioned handmade gourd banjo to the vocal harmonies that could have some from the Carter Family. It’s all very tastefully done, with a high level of musicianship, belying the outwardly rustic sound. The songs also have a timeless quality lyrically.
Our grade for sound quality is A-minus. Most of the tracks have a warm inviting sound with good clarity, that captures the acoustic instrumentation well, and has the vocal harmonies mixed just right. But a couple of tracks have a not-very-well-miked sound, which is detracts from those songs.
If you are tired of electronic pop generated in silicon chips, then the revival of traditional sounding acoustic folk-style albums is definite good news. And Pharis and Jason Romero have made a particularly fine example in their new release.
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