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The Graham Album Review #1822

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Steep Ravine: The Pedestrian
by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/15/2015)

While it does not seem to be as active as it used to be in terms of the number of albums being released each year, the so-called New Acoustic music scene remains active, with artists ranging from pretty much straight bluegrass to sophisticated jazzy material, to acoustic jam bands. The founding musicians in the genre remain active and there have been some worthwhile emerging artists. The common denominator is the acoustic instrumentation that the genre shares with bluegrass.

This week, we have an appealing new record that uses the eclectic approach of the New Acoustic scene and applies it to material that is more along the singer-songwriter vein, with some pleasing vocals. The group is called Steep Ravine, not to be confused with the Steep Canyon Rangers, the bluegrass band who sometimes perform with funnyman Steve Martin. Steep Ravine have released their second recording called The Pedestrian.

Steep Ravine are a trio from the San Francisco area who formed in 2013 and released their debut album Trampin’ On last year. They are fairly distinctive in their instrumental makeup, with Simon Linsteadt on various string instruments which are usually handled by separate people in a bluegrass band, guitar, banjo and mandolin. Linsteadt is also the songwriter and lead vocalist. Joining him are Jan Purat on on fiddle and backing vocals, and Alex Bice, who plays bass and also does drums, percussion and backing vocals. So their album was constructed by necessity with a fair amount of overdubbing. More on that later. Linsteadt’s compositions are the band’s greatest strength: he writes excellent material that is interesting musically and quite literate and poetic lyrically. The music sometimes has a melancholy or contemplative quality, rather than being like rousing bluegrass, but that puts them good company with groups like Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and Nickel Creek. Steep Ravine also tends to get a little jazzy at times, with compositions that can have jazz-like chord structures and the genre’s approach to the acoustic bass, but they don’t do a lot of instrumental soloing on their album, despite the fact that the tracks tend to run on the long side. Lyrically, the group says that the ten songs on the record are “meant to explore... inner dialogue(s).”

Despite the overdubbed instrumentation, the band remains self-contained on the album, with according the band’s publicity, Linsteadt recording a number of his acoustic instruments at his home studio before integrating them into the rest of the band in a more legit studio. Musically it’s fairly seamless, but it obviously prevents the band from performing the arrangements live.

Opening is a song called Adeline, which sets up the somewhat contemplative mood of the album, and highlights the group’s attractive sound. <<>>

More toward bluegrass, spotlighting the banjo is Shadow of a Cloud, which continues the band’s introspective lyrical mood. <<>>

A definite highlight of the album is Lonesome Daybreak. The very appealing song also is about an inner dialogue, this one about having a dream to be a nomad and not being tied to one place. <<>>

Tom Foolery is another song on Steep Ravine’s jazzy side. The Tom Foolery of the title is an imaginary character who instills doubts in people. <<>>

Grenadine, according to the band, explores the split between city life and the more peaceful countryside. It’s another attractively melodic tune with nice performances by all involved. <<>>

A track called Daylight in a Jail Cell is not about incarceration literally, but about what seems like prison while being on the road, as a traveling musician. The arrangement runs toward the New Acoustic style. <<>>

About the only straight-out love song on the album is one called Suzanne, not to be confused with the famous Leonard Cohen song of the same name. Steep Ravine’s Suzanne is a country style waltz in which everybody in the band plays at least two parts. <<>>

The album ends with its title track The Pedestrian, which is also the album’s lengthiest at seven and a half minutes. <<>> There are plenty of lyrics to account for the song’s generous proportions, though toward the end, there are some instrumental solos, including one from fiddler Jan Purat. <<>>

The Pedestrian, the new second album by the acoustic trio Steep Ravine is a very enjoyable record that combines the literate approach and excellent vocals of a good singer-songwriter with the fairly sophisticated instrumental style of the New Acoustic scene. Simon Linsteadt’s compositions are first-rate and his vocals are very appealing. Stylistically, the group runs between more conventional bluegrass to the New Acoustic scene in the tradition of Alison Krauss & Union Station, and also an occasional hint at jazz. It’s all rather well done, though the group does not go for the instrumental virtuosity of many of the New Acoustic players on the scene. But in a way, that helps the listener concentrate on the songs themselves, which have much to offer.

The one sour note is the album’s sonics. I’ll give the CD a grade of about C. While it does not have the awful distortion effects that are a depressing part a lot of the contemporary pop scene, and thankfully, the vocals are pretty well recorded, as an acoustic album, it is disappointing. Simon Linsteadt recorded a lot of his instrumental parts in his home studio, and they don’t mesh particularly well with the other instruments, so it loses some the quality of a band playing together. And speaking as someone who has done my share of recording of acoustic music, far worse is the ham-handed over-compression of the sound in misguided effort to crank it up, butchering the dynamics of the music and degrading the texture of the acoustic instruments. Someone should confiscate the volume compressors used by the mixing and mastering engineers, and they should be made to write on the blackboard 100 times “Louder is NOT better.”

Despite the inept recording, Steep Ravine’s music is very impressive, skillfully bringing a range of influences together in a very attractive musical package.

(c) Copyright 2015 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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