Out of Binghamton, New York, comes Driftwood, a four-piece acoustic string band -- fiddle, banjo, guitar, double bass -- that blends folk, rock, and jazz with talented songwriting to create, for their self-titled third album, a genre-defying masterpiece of 11 tracks. Driftwood has garnered attention for their live shows, having played over 500 unique venues since 2009. The new, self-produced Driftwood, out December 3, was recorded in a church outside Ithaca, New York, and expertly captures a warm, live sound filled out on several tracks with percussion and piano. “Before I Rust” features fiddler Claire Byrne’s arresting singing over a lush, swelling orchestral backdrop. Alternatively, “Company Store” is instrumentally sparse, turning the attention to the group’s vocal harmonies and skilled songwriting, which in this case tells the tale of an old, lovelorn prospector.
Produced by Grammy-winning engineer Robbie Hunter, Driftwood captures some truly magical moments. According to guitarist Dan Forsyth, “The church was a beautiful place to make music. There were a lot of external factors that made the whole experience so genuine: road traffic, cold weather with an ancient heating system, fire sirens from the station next door. During the intro to the track ‘Buffalo Street,’ you can hear the snow pounding on the stained-glass windows. The sound was completely honest and the vibe was unreal.” While Driftwood has turned heads with their reputation for putting on an energetic live show, I predict that this new recording will finally earn them some recognition for what they can do in the studio.
Just months after winning a Best Bluegrass Album Grammy, for Nobody Knows You, in September the Steep Canyon Rangers hit another bull’s-eye with Tell the Ones I Love (Rounder Records). Train imagery is the theme for much of this disc, and the Rangers display their masterful musicianship throughout. Wistful and sad, “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken” is one of the loveliest songs I’ve heard all year. “Boomtown” is classic country songwriting atop a punchy, swirling bluegrass reel. “Hunger” brings a perfectly timed hint of gospel blues to the table. The band has long been associated with musician and comedian Steve Martin, who sang and played banjo with them on several national tours and on their 2011 recording, Rare Bird Alert. While Martin doesn’t appear here, his connection with the band helped draw attention to them, and it’s clear why he aligned himself with the group: as part of the new wave of rising bluegrass legends, the Steep Canyon Rangers are masters of their craft. Any association with musicians of this caliber is a rare honor.
West Virginia musician Adam Booth has won national awards in the art of storytelling and is a three-time champion of the West Virginia Liars Competition. His new album, The Mountain Came Alive, tells in story and song the tale of the last year in the life of a mountain. Drawing equally on his vast musical knowledge and his storytelling talents, Booth wrote all of the songs, plays many of the instruments himself, and weaves a profoundly contemplative tale that examines the effects of mountaintop-removal mining on Appalachian communities and the environment. The Mountain Came Alive is an all-ages album, ideal for educators and families alike. Citing such influences as Johnny Costa (jazz pianist and musical director for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) and Joe Raposo (songwriter for Sesame Street), Booth says he approached the project with the intention of writing children’s music that was as musically complex as the songs he grew up listening to on PBS broadcasts in the early 1980s. As in a patchwork quilt, traditional Appalachian elements are woven into the story: references to native plants, seasons, shape-note singing, folk dance, and emphasis on the importance of the home place. Booth makes the complexities of environmental degradation accessible to a younger audience; in all its beauty and complexity, the tale he tells is a call for awareness and awakening in those regions affected by mountaintop removal. The disc and accompanying interactive educational website can be found at themountaincamealive.com.
After studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, songwriter Jordan Tarrant headed to Richmond, Virginia, where he found a community of talented musicians to help bring his visionary songwriting to life in the studio. His new six-song EP, Lazarus, was recorded with a bare-bones approach at the Virginia Moonwalker Studio. Captured on a Tascam 388 reel-to-reel tape machine, the gentle quality of Tarrant’s singing and the warmth of the arrangements shine through the analog mix. Featuring lap steel and bass guitar, mandolin, organ, fiddle, and percussion, Lazarus introduces a musician with a knack for speaking from and to the heart. Songs like “Candle” and “Baby I’m Here” are sung in a troubadour minor key reminiscent of Jeff Tweedy or Townes Van Zandt. “Guilty” displays a southern shuffle with crunchy backing of guitar, drums, and piano, for a gritty crossroads vibe.
I’m really open to exploring new music in the New Year. Let me know what you’re listening to and what I might consider reviewing.
. . . Shannon Holiday