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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1426

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Will Taylor & Strings Attached: Collaborations
by George Graham

(Heart Music 2037 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/21/2005)

Rock and pop musicians have been using the services of string players on records for decades. But rarely does a violinist, much less a violist, who spends much of his time playing classical music, create an album on which the pop musicians are guests. But that is what we have this week: a group called Will Taylor and Strings Attached, and their CD Collaborations.

Will Taylor is a Texas-based violist who generally followed the usual classical path, and who has played with the Austin Lyric Opera for eleven years. But his musical tastes and influences are quite eclectic, and he spent some time with the notably wide-ranging Turtle Island String Quartet. He also released three jazz viola recordings during the 1990s. In the late 1990s, he began collaborating with some of the many singer-songwriters on the Austin music scene. He began a series of almost monthly concerts in which he invited a notable artist to forego his or her regular band and then Taylor would create new arrangements around the strings, usually involving some other distinctive instrumentation like tabla drums or trumpet. The concerts have generally been held in churches, to take advantage of the acoustics. That has grown to a series of radio broadcasts, including on Austin Public Radio KUT. Collaborations is a well-named sampler of some of these joint concerts -- along with a few studio recordings -- with a variety of Austin's singer-songwriters, from roots-rock style to almost cabaret, performing their own music with Taylor's distinctive arrangements and members of Taylor's own ensemble.

Interestingly, it's not what you might expect -- a large orchestral setting, or maybe violin played fiddle style -- but instead it's a collection of mostly acoustic arrangements in which the strings are but one element. Sometimes there are just two string players, such as Taylor on his viola and a cello, for a rather dark sound, and once the group does grow to a full string quartet. Taylor spent a fair amount of time working on preparing the treatments of pieces, which are songs that are in the everyday repertoire of the guest singer-songwriters. Taylor's arrangements often give the music a new spin, but usually are fairly transparent, not really drawing too much attention to themselves, with the song and the vocalist maintaining the spotlight.

The guests on Collaborations are some of the bright lights on the contemporary Texas singer-songwriter scene, with the emphasis on up-and-coming talent, though Shawn Colvin also appears, and she is not exactly an obscure figure. Other guests include Ruthie Foster, whose style runs toward blues and Gospel, Ian Moore, a roots rocker, Jimmy LaFave, whose music can run toward the rockabilly, and Barbara Kooyman, who was half of the pop duo Timbuk 3. There is also one original instrumental piece by Taylor himself.

Though the front-person varies, there are players who appear on several of the pieces and comprise a kind of semi-regular band, considering that this CD is taken from performances spanning nearly five years, from 1999 to 2004. Strings Attached includes cellists Charles Prewitt and Dawn Sanders, Jason McKenzie on drums and percussion, including the tablas, and Steve Zirkel who plays trumpet, piano and bass. Taylor himself, in addition to his regular viola, plays violin along with guitar.

Because much of the CD was recorded in performance, there is a definite live feel to the recording and sometimes there isn't the musical perfection that might be expected in a studio with the opportunities for overdubs and multiple takes. But that adds to the immediacy of the CD.

The opening track, Easy Rider features Eliza Gilkyson. It was recorded in a church in 2002, and it rather epitomizes the sound of the CD, with the understated but often atmospheric sound that Taylor's group can bring to bear on a song. Ms. Gilkyson puts in a nice performance. <<>>

With Shawn Colvin is Set the Prairie On Fire, which sounds rather like her own recordings, with the strings, just viola and cello, taking a more textural mode. It's one of Ms. Colvin's better-known songs, and the contrast with the original is interesting. <<>>

Ian Moore has a reputation as something of a rocker, but his track on the CD, the song called Cinnamon is a surprise, which takes a distinctly theatrical bent. The result is a generally pleasant surprise. <<>>

One of the definite highlights of the CD is Ocean of Tears, an old spiritual song sung by Ruthie Foster. The recording venue, another church, proved to be appropriate. <<>>

The track featuring Libby Kirkpatrick, In This Life, has the mood of an old Tin Pan Alley or Vaudeville song, though it's an original by Ms. Kirkpatrick. Again, the Strings Attached are kept subtle. <<>>

My Name Is Truth was written by and features Barbara Kooyman or Barbara K. from Timbuk 3. This was recorded in a studio, and was produced and recorded by Ms. Kooyman. The allegorical lyrics mesh well with the distinctive arrangement featuring a string trio plus the tabla drums. <<>>

The track featuring Jimmy LaFave is definitely a change of pace for the usually rocking singer-songwriter. Never Is a Moment is a LaFave original, and with Strings Attached, the love song is given a plaintive treatment that underscores the lyrics about separation. <<>>

The instrumental piece by Will Taylor is called Tigris, and it's an interesting blend of Eastern influences and European classical. Taylor plays the guitar as well as the violin. It recalls the sound of the jazz group Oregon. <<>>

The CD ends with It's Alright featuring Sara Hickman, another of the singer-songwriters who has had some wider exposure. Here, the arrangement is a standard string quartet, and with Ms. Hickman's fine vocal, it's a definite highlight of the album. <<>>

This is certainly not the first time that pop performers have collaborated with string players. But what makes Collaborations by Will Taylor and Strings Attached interesting is that it's a string player leading the group, and having the various singer-songwriters serve as guests. The result is a enjoyable and engaging recording that also serves as a nice sampler of contemporary Texas singer-songwriters. While some tracks work better than others, every piece has something worthwhile to offer.

In a day and age in which recordings are constructed, sometimes practically note by note to musical perfection, the fact that most of this CD was recorded live in essentially one-time performances, means that a few imperfections in both performance and recording were of necessity left in. Most of the time they give the recording character and a live feel, though there are a few that those with a critical ear might notice.

And speaking of sound, our audio quality grade is an A-Minus. There is a pleasing amount of dynamic range, allowing the loud and soft of the performances to come through, and generally, the mix is commendable. But with the recording done in various venues over a period of five years, there is a little understandable inconsistency in sound between tracks.

Adding further to the distinctive quality of this album is the fact that it's also a charity benefit project for an organization that advocates for abused children. Eleven notable Texas singer-songwriters collaborating with a viola player and creative arranger makes for an intriguing and musically rewarding CD.

(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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