Ah, here they are again! I’d wondered if California’s splendid inhabitants of the outer atmosphere of planet old-time music were still a thing, as it has been more than a decade since their last ‘proper’ album Shining Darkness, which we loved to death. Well, here they are and here they aren’t, because only leader Jeff Kazor is still extant from the line-up which produced that beloved artefact.
Does that matter? Well, as it turns out, hardly at all, considering it has been such a big change. Maybe it was a slow and organic one over that timescale? To be sure, they no longer have the lovely vocals of the blessed Leah Abramson, but they do have the vision of Kazor and the consistency of producer (and guest player) Bruce Kaplan stitching it all together. And they do still add to the ‘standard’ bluesy old-timey palette with all sorts of fringe instrumental textures, with what they call ‘minstrel banjo’ played by Erik Pearson centring a lot of it: it somehow puts across the characteristic non-clanky sound of fretless banjo, though the one pictured in the package looks conventional enough. Lisa Berman’s slide guitar/ dobro and voice fill the Abramson-shaped hole – you can hear her on Down By The River, inspired by Fred McDowell, on this issue’s fRoots 72 compilation. And the three women’s voices in the line-up – Berman, Megan Adie and Emily Mann – blend together in full goosepimple-erecting mode on a version of Long Time Travelling, a song that long-time-listening UK readers will treasure from that Peter Bellamy recording with the Watersons.
Mix as before then, even though they’re not as before. Skewed, ear-caressing versions of old roots standards warped into new shapes – try the pulsing Pretty Little Shoes with fiddle, ukes, banjo, bamboo flute and dulcimer – and original songs that fit into the crooked mould. Can I think of anybody else who has extended their vision over a ten-year gap and then come up with another masterpiece to rank with its predecessor? Well – that’d only be Snakefarm then, can’t think of anybody else. And that is mega-praise.
(PS: continuing past practice, the triple gatefold Digipak and booklet is a beauty, this one’s front art by veteran Blue Note designer Bob Ciano. Such things are important too.)
Jade Note Music CJ010 | crookedjades.com | Photo credit: Snap Jackson