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by George Graham
(Independent Release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/13/2019)
Folk influence continues to show its mark in certain quarters of the contemporary music world, with musicians whose parents and perhaps grandparents were into the 1960s folk scene. They are reviving the concept of acoustic instrumentation including mandolins, banjos, Dobros and the like, and going for a vocal style more like the folkies of the past where harmonies in bands were prominent.
While revivals of styles with a degree of authenticity can be enjoyable, it’s also fun when the current generation charts their own direction based on the original influences. This week we have a group that does that, in an approach that I would call clever. The band calls themselves Upstate, and their new release is called Healing.
Upstate started out as Upstate Rubdown in Upstate New York’s Hudson Valley in 2015, and came together as an interesting combination, with multiple female lead vocals and harmonies, all-acoustic instrumentation, but a sound that tended more toward jazz than traditional folk or bluegrass. Their debut album Remedy attracted some attention and led to national tours and festival such as Mountain Jam and Freshgrass.
Since then, they added a new member, another vocalist, and expanded their songwriting stable to four or the members. The current lineup includes the three women on lead vocals and harmonies, Melanie Glenn, Mary Kenney and their new member Allison Olender, who also play some guitar and percussion. The rest of the core sextet includes Harry D’Agostino on acoustic bass, which is a prominent part of the band’s sound, Ryan Chappell on mandolin, another core instrument, and playing percussion, including the cajon, the wooden box used as a Latin American percussion instrument, is Dean Mahoney. There are no conventional drums. So the sound is an interesting and somewhat unconventional mix, though it does recall at times the trio I’m With Her and the band Lake Street Dive.
With four songwriters in Upstate on the new album, the compositions are strong, and range from conventional love songs, to somewhat snarky non-love songs, to bits of philosophy. Stylistically, the jazzy influence adds a sparkle to Upstate’s sound, especially when horns are brought in for a couple of tracks, while the mandolin is a near constant folky reminder. The result is an upbeat, entertaining album, even on a couple of tracks with more introspective lyrics.
Leading off is the title piece Healing which considers the difficulty of emotional healing. The sound spotlights Upstate’s bright folky-jazzy mix, with the strong three part female vocal harmonies. <<>>
Going Gone is a break-up song, which despite the lyrics about the end of an affair, the band keeps an appealing syncopated beat going. <<>>
The song called Weekend features features the three-part harmonies prominently, with some of the band’s clever love-song lyrics. <<>>
I’ll Be Fine is one of the more laid-back tracks on the album, with its lyrics about the loneliness after a breakup, but it still has an arrangement that can sound sunny. <<>>
Lyrically, the most interesting piece on the album is Sarah a story song about dealing with the hard economy and lack of jobs in dying industries. <<>>
One of the album’s particularly interesting songs is called Mother, which elucidates inherited traits good and bad. <<>>
Another lyrically clever song is called Marietta, and it’s about getting postcards from an ex, or at least he became that by running off to see the country. <<>>
The album ends with the closest it has to an intimate love song Crawl In, which just features the vocal trio with acoustic guitar. <<>>
Healing, the new release by the geographically named sextet Upstate is a thoroughly enjoyable album of often witty songs with a very appealing jazzy, folky, often danceable, syncopated acoustic sound. The distinctive combination of the three women doing lead vocals and close harmonies, with the stylistically eclectic arrangements that run from folk to swing, makes for a sound that is hard not to like. Upstate boasts a winning combination of the great writing, creative arrangements, and first-class musicianship.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The acoustic instrumentation especially the double bass, are well-captured and warm, but the vocals sometimes sound too compressed, and the overall sound is short on dynamic range, with most things at about the same loud volume most of the time.
Old folk music fans like me are finding it a pleasing development that folky acoustic groups are making a kind of 21st Century revival among emerging performers. Upstate is a particularly worthwhile example.
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