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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1492

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Round Mountain: Truth and Darkness
by George Graham

(Fast Horse Recordings As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/18/2007)

For the avid, open-minded fan, music has a seemingly endless ability to surprise even those of us lucky listen to a lot of different styles. It does not happen very often, given the herd-like nature of the popular music business, and its tendency to ape trends, but sometimes some music will come out of left field that is both really interesting and quite easily enjoyable. Those two qualities do not often happen at the same time. And it's especially exciting when the music is outwardly very simple and spare sounding. This week, we have a new CD of such music by a band called Round Mountain, whose new release is called Truth and Darkness.

Lately, there has been what I find an intriguing trend of young performers rediscovering old folk songs and serving them up with acoustic folk instrumentation, though often in unconventional combinations, such as the bands Crooked Still, the Duhks and Ollabelle. Round Mountain is a trio from Santa Fe, New Mexico, two of whom are brothers. The use a motley collection of instruments running from banjo to Bulgarian bagpipes, to Malian kora, to Irish pennywhistle to Turkish saz to trumpet and accordion, to Latin American percussion. But the fact that they record more or less live, means that there are not too many instruments at a time -- more about that later -- and they keep the sound simple to the point of starkness. But they manage to combine as many musical influences as their collection of instruments would suggest. And instead of doing traditional songs, like other such eclectic acoustic groups have been doing, Round Mountain do original music of considerable sophistication, despite the outwardly barebones sound.

Round Mountain is Char Rothschild, the older of the brothers and the incurable multi-instrumentalist, playing most of the aforementioned exotic instruments, as well as sharing vocal and songwriting duties with his brother Robby. Char also tends to play more than one instrument at once -- such as trumpet and accordion. Robby plays mainly percussion but also instruments like the African kora, bouzouki and mandolin. Both have academic musical backgrounds, Char with a BFA in Contemporary Music from the College of Santa Fe, and Robby at the New England Conservatory of Music, the College of Santa Fe, and University of New Mexico, where is working on his Masters' in Composition. He also traveled to Africa to study percussion there. Rounding out the trio is bassist John Gagan. Robby Rothschild and Gagan played together previously in Nuevo Flamenco guitarist Ottmar Leibert's band. Of course, the two Rothschild brothers have been musical collaborators all their lives.

One is quickly taken by Round Mountain's music, the seemingly traditional sound that sneaks into a breathtaking array of influences, while at times being as simple as voice and kora -- the African harp guitar of Mali. At other times, the music can swirl into a kind of Eastern European or Middle Eastern conglomeration that can evoke a kind of laid-back klezmer music, or even a polka.

The lyrics tend to be introspective -- there is only one real love song and it's pretty understated -- and there are essentially a couple of lullabies, and some poetic reflections on life and family. The group's surroundings in the desert Southwest also form the backdrop for some of the songs. And both brothers write about the arrival of their respective children.

Opening is a track called Hildia, who is reputed to be a mythical woman in charge of the weather. The song hints at old-time Appalachian music. <<>> But soon, there are dollops of the Eastern European influence that the group frequently draws on. <<>>

A song inspired by the band's New Mexico surroundings is The Old Tree. It also hints at old-timey music, but they also add the Bulgarian bagpipe called the "gaida." <<>>

The group gets more wildly eclectic on Venus and the Tower, which was written by Char Rothschild about upon the arrival of his daughter, and inspired by his carrying her around to calm her. The group's Eastern European influences come to the fore. <<>>

Round Mountain can be at their most striking on their outwardly simple tracks. Burn It Down, about the arrival of the chill of winter, features mainly the African kora with the bass and light percussion, and Robbie's plaintive vocals. The result is quite haunting. <<>>

Another remarkably eclectic piece is Candle in the Willow Tree, a kind of philosophical song celebrating the here and now. It comes out as a kind of Middle Eastern reggae blues. <<>>

The title track, Truth and Darkness is the album's love song, and it's appropriately upbeat, with the Round Mountain's trademark collection of very disparate influences, in this case, some Sixties folk and hints of African. <<>>

Also arresting in its sound I Am Here, written as a lullaby. It's just Char on the vocals and Robby on the kora. <<>>

For me, probably the most memorable track is Penumbra, also inspired by New Mexico's vistas. Again, the kora plays a major part, and is a foil for Robby's slightly quavery vocals. There is a subtle Latin rhythmic undercurrent at times, while the kora gives the song its plaintive sound. <<>>

Truth and Darkness the new release by the New Mexico trio Round Mountain is a remarkable piece of work. The trio of two brothers and a friend manages to create music that is outwardly simple and even stark, and yet breathtaking in its eclecticism, while at the same time being very appealing. Their odd mixture of exotic musical influences inspired by their gallery of exotic instruments from around the world, is interesting enough -- and there have been lots of groups to do world music fusion. But Round Mountain creates music that is quiet, subtle, delicate, and at the same time very informal sounding, something that really sets them apart and makes this such a fascinating album to listen to, and one whose sound will stay with you long after the CD is over.

Sonically, we'll give the CD an A-minus. The recording and mix are as subtle and spare as the music, with no readily audible studio effects, save for a little overdubbing. But unfortunately, the volume was cranked up some in the mastering process, which does undermine some of the music's finer shades of dynamics.

One would have thought that most of the possibilities of a folky trio with acoustic instrumentation would have been exhausted by now. Round Mountain have certainly exploded that notion, and made some memorable music in the process.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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