Music Review: Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer – Seed of a Pine

Hi all!

Why did it take so long to come to my senses and discover Americana and Bluegrass? Now in my forties, with a childhood where my father and I would play old folk songs on guitars at home, you’d think there would be a natural progression from those days to an appreciation to the folk- and country-infused traditions of these musical styles. But until the last decade, I thought Americana was Country and I didn’t want to listen to that Country “twang”…

I’m older and wiser now, which is why I was thrilled when Mandy Fer contacted me and asked if I’d mind listening to her new album, a collaboration with Dave McGraw called Seed of a Pine. So I checked it out online and listened to a few tracks. I think before I was done listening to the first song I sent an e-mail back saying I’d love to listen to the rest of the album. And it didn’t disappoint.

The stripped down arrangements – minimal guitars, piano, fiddle and voices – works beautifully to share the feel of a particular track without over-engineering any song. Each tells a story that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as it does in much of the pop and R&B music played on radio stations nationwide. These songs manage to intertwine a deep passion between the notes of the harmonies composed by McGraw’s baritone and Fer’s soaring and sultry vocals. Accompanying the duo are acclaimed musicians Peter Mulvey, Po’Girl songstress Allison Russel, and Chicago’s JT Nero (of JT and the Clouds).

What’s funny is that I usually find it easy to pick three or four songs to focus on, but no matter how many times I listen to Seed of a Pine, it’s impossible for me to choose. The tracks run from more traditional folk with simple melodies (“Seed of a Pine”) to more Blues-influenced (“Serotiny (May Our Music)”) to the Spanish-infused (“Comin’ Down”) and many that defy categorization. But that’s part of the Americana tradition – weaving styles as suits the story.

“Waking the Dreamer” has to be one of my favorites. It reminds me a bit of some of the songs from The Swell Season (duo Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) on the Once soundtrack. There’s a rise and fall, and a hope about the lyrics “Waking the dreamer / for you for you…” amidst the steady drum beat and the pairing of electric and acoustic guitars.

Within the melody and hopeful words of “Western Sky” there are some echoes of Bruce Springsteen‘s “I’m on Fire.” A simple guitar strum pattern with the entwined voices of McGraw and Fer tell a story of love and support. “This time I’m really coming home.” You know that feeling when you know you’re going home to stay for a while? Or when you find the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with? “For you took this heart of mine and you placed it in your eyes / you gave me peace of mind and with it I’ll decide / that you will be the one when I lay my body down…” I’d be surprised if this didn’t become the wedding song for more than a few people in 2012.

And “Serotiny (May Our Music)” starts with a Blues beat that wormed its way into my head while talking about the landscape of the heart and memory. Though I’m not sure if the couple in the song are playing music to the gods as an offering or the offering is between the pair of them, but they want to be heard. As they play guitars in the field, “play for me your favorite song, pull me up into your sky / where the thunder speaks in crazy tongues / and the gods do not decide.” The melodies soar through this one, tugged along by the steady guitars.

I could talk about all of the songs on this album until the cows come home. Honestly this is one of those Jerry Maguire albums which “had me at hello.” If you’re a fan of modern folk and Americana, you can’t go wrong with Seed of a Pine. The album releases tomorrow – February 15, 2012 – so keep your ears open. For more information, check out the album website, plus Mandy Fer’s website and Dave McGraw’s website.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Driftwood Fire – How to Untangle a Heartache

Hey there!

Since college, I’ve been entranced by the chanteuses of modern folk and Americana, especially those who prefer playing acoustic instruments. (Nothing wrong with electric guitars, but I find it harder to actually hear melodies and voices when the volume is cranked.) Among some of my favorites are the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, and Brandi Carlile. Each of these not only has an amazing voice, but understands the power of strong songwriting, layered harmonies, and how to play the right instrument for the right mood.

I love adding new artists to my list and it’s definitely grown and changed over the years – moving from more rock-n-roll to bluegrass, Americana, and folk as I get older. All it takes is a lick, a verse, or a bit of harmony that leads me to discovering more about a new voice or musician…

But it’s hard to argue when you’re pointed to musicians who went to school at your alma mater and are based in the college town you called home for five years. Lynn Scharf (singer, guitarist) and Charlotte Formichella (multi-instrumentalist) are known as Driftwood Fire and they call Fort Collins, Colorado home. And though it’s been a long road for them from inception to album, How to Untangle a Heartache has a purity about it that makes it a joy to listen to.

There are qualities to Lynn’s voice that reminds me of Brandi Carlile in “Let it all go”. With Charlotte’s opening pick line… “Don’t break my heart / it’ll never mend / we’re starting something / and we don’t know how it ends / just drive me someplace I’ve never seen / so late at night I mistake / you for a dream / and kiss me real slow / and just let it all go…” It’s a song about doing what feels good even if we know better. And sometimes, life is like that. There’s an honesty there that shines through.

“Apalachian Hills” has a haunting quality, sort of like something Sarah Jarosz would sing. It tells a story about a place chased by its past and showing through to the present. Here there’s a simple arrangement that lets the guitar, banjo, piano, and voice easily express the sadness of the place. Between the Civil War, silver miners, and other folks seeking their fortunes – leaving many dead in the fields, forgotten by time. Though not cheerful, again – there’s an honest appreciation for the history of a place without overblowing it with loud electric guitars.

The simple strum and lead guitar at the beginning of “One Thing Left” reminds me a Big Head Todd and the Monsters song… But again, it’s the lyrics that bring it alive. “You wrote a letter / apologizing / for your absence / not realizing / that only hurt me / I read it slowly / shaking like a bird fighting with the wind / shocked I was all alone…” This is almost a country song with the Americana showing through. But that “one thing left” to tell you – is that I’ve moved on. I keep repeating that there’s an honesty in the music and the words, but that’s what it is. A simple message – you hurt me, but I got over it.

Love can definitely hurt – but at least when poets and songwriters survive it, it’s “food for songs” as Del Amitri once said. Thank goodness Lynn and Charlotte have managed to work out their heartache in song so that we can enjoy the fruits of that musical therapy. Definitely check out Driftwood Fire’s How to Untangle a Heartache if you’re looking for something new in the Americana/Folk vein for your collection.

Check out the Driftwood Fire home page for more information about the album or their ongoing tour.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Amy Black – One Time

Hi there!

Occasionally I find my musical tastes more than a little ironic. For instance, I have always been a fan of folk music. And in recent years I’ve broadened that to include some Americana and Bluegrass in the mix. But I’ve never been a fan of country music. Whether it’s the grating steel guitars or the oft-repeated and stereotypical themes of “lost my truck/dog/girl,” I can’t say. But it’s always been a sticking point in my head.

That said, I have been very amused by how close to country I’m getting with some Americana. I wonder why that is? Anyway, listening to Amy Black’s album “One Time” due out March 29th, I was reminded of this. Many of the tunes are on that mythical Country border, but I found them both entertaining and in some cases even beautiful. Am I finally crossing the line and enjoying Country music? Only time will tell.

One Time is Black’s sophomore effort, after Amy Black & the Red Clay Rascals back in 2009. Where that first album was mostly covers along with two originals, One Time features nine originals. Each song has a classic Americana feel, but mixes in a bit of blues and country influence for good measure. Black’s voice through it all has a genuine heartfelt folksy feel and storytelling style, all backed up by a great band. If this is country-esque, then I’m on board to hear more from Black and the Red Clay Rascals going forward, genre-be-damned.

As you might guess, the songs I liked the most are typically along the Americana/Bluegrass side of the spectrum. “Run Johnny” is my favorite, telling the story of a man on the run. Intermixed with the story is a great fiddle, steel guitar, and banjo keeping the song moving along is Black’s voice singing “You better run, run Johnny / Lawman’s on his way / Better get outta Alabamy / ‘fore the break of day…” Black is haunting as she tells the man he needs to get on his way after killing his woman. And the guitar solo in the middle of the song sounds great.

“One Time,” the title song, seems to be a straight up blues song with some Bluegrass style. “Look him in the eyes / Say “Baby, baby this bird’s gotta fly” – it’s time for the woman to take control of her life and walk away from a man who’s no good for her. It sounds just like a woman talking to one of her girlfriends in a bar. Again, it’s the story that drives the song and it feels genuine. It’s tough to discount advice such as “You only live one time… get on with your life.”

And “Words Fail You” is Country through and through, but somehow the simple arrangement and heartfelt delivery makes it beautiful. The song, originally by Kris Delmhorst, tells the story about a relationship that a pair wants to work, but doesn’t know how. “And I know words fail you / … Well baby sometimes they fail me too.” It’s the things not said that fill the room. “Now this Toyota is getting crowded with all the things that no one’s saying / and if I opened up my mouth now I think I would be praying.” The slow, romantic song feels like it’s about a real couple. And Black sells it with every note.

Based in Boston, Black wants to make music full time and I think she’ll make it work. I’d be surprised if I didn’t hear she was up for any number of awards come award show season. Her expressive voice, great band, and passion will take her straight to the ears and hearts of many fans that won’t let her be forgotten. Be sure to check out One Time from Amy Black when at her website – AmyBlack.com. If you like Americana and Country, there’s a lot to love here.

–Fitz

p.s. Be sure to pick up Amy Black’s music at her website!

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