[Music Review] Some Strange Country – Crooked Still

Hi everyone…

Who would have thought that bluegrass music would become a guilty pleasure for me? In the last year, I’ve been learning to love bluegrass and Americana, with that unique combination of strings, hope, and passion among those fiddles, banjos, and harmonies strummed, picked, and sung to express life’s loves and losses and the road between. Some Strange Country is my first exposure to the band Crooked Still, but they’ve been around since the early 2000’s.

Aoife O’Donovan’s expressive vocals are but a part of the composite that forms when this quintet purrs along on all cylinders. Joined by bassist Corey DiMario, banjo player Greg Liszt, cellist Tristan Clarridge and fiddler Brittany Haas, the finger-picking and bow-playing layers add depth and balance that makes even the saddest moments full and emotive. To put it bluntly, these people are amazing.

Some Strange Country features a mix of traditional songs, original works, and a surprising version of the Rolling Stones‘ “You Got the Silver.” Nowhere along the album’s path did the group stray from the classical roots of bluegrass or the skills that brought them where they are today – touring to support the album to be released June 1st, 2010.

I knew I was hooked from the first song “Sometimes in this Country.” As O’Donovan sings… “Sometimes I’m in this country / sometimes I’m in this town / sometimes a thought goes through my mind / that I myself will drown…” accompanied by a gentle banjo melody and string bass that drives this song from beginning to end. Through the song you can hear the other band members playing with the rhythm and melody combinations to add almost a jazz-like playfulness between fiddle, cello, the banjo, and vocal harmonies.

Contrast that with the slow, emotional vocal and instrumental melodies of “Distress,” which evokes a feeling of loss. As a lover of traditional Celtic-sounding songs, this one seems to blend an Irish lilt with the bluegrass to create something not entirely new, but sharing a familiar and comfortable sadness that goes beyond ethnic background or musical style.

My second favorite “Half of What We Know” again merges a steady beat with a melody that rises and falls with a Corrs-style chorus above Liszst’s incredible fingers picking the banjo. With poetic verses like “Your lonesomeness I see / but I know it’s not for me / the mountains all have crumbled to the sea…” I lost myself finding meaning in each poetic line. Each turn of phrase might be interpreted any number of ways, as with much of art – a quality missing from far too much of the music heard on the radio today.

And though I’m not a religious person, there’s a passion and energy to “Calvary” that can’t be denied. From the cello and banjo solos and the vocal harmonies, this song simply rocks and tells the story of Jesus’ final day. Who knew a song about events in the Bible could be so well written and entertaining? “Behold faint on the road ‘neath the worlds heavy load / comes a thorn crowned man on the way / with the cross he is bowed but still on through the crowd / he’s ascending to the hill on the grey…” This is the first song in quite a while (since Matt Duke’s acoustic “Kingdom Underground”) where I’ve felt my spirit moved in ways it rarely goes.

Even if you’re not a bluegrass fan and simply like to hear great words, musical skills and performances, I’d recommend you take a listen to what Crooked Still has to offer. This isn’t Hee-Haw bluegrass, but instead a blending of musical styles and sensibilities around the bluegrass feel. Some Strange Country will remain in my listening queue for quite a while.

Be sure to take a look at the Crooked Still website for information about their tour schedule and previous albums.

–Fitz

p.s. Please check out this album and others from Crooked Still below!

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DVD Review: The First Easter Rabbit, Deluxe Edition

Hi all…

Most of the kids I grew up with expected the Easter Bunny to arrive at their house before Easter morning, leaving behind baskets of candy and multi-colored eggs and hidden surprises around the house or yard to try and find. And inevitably he would appear, like clockwork, on Easter morning. We’ve been trying to keep that tradition alive with our kids now, so I was pleased to see The First Easter Rabbit, Deluxe Edition released on DVD for the holiday this year.

Originally airing in 1976, The First Easter Rabbit tells the story of how a lovable little stuffed bunny became the first Easter Bunny ever and how he was helped that first year by Santa Claus! This animated special was done by Rankin/Bass – founded originally by Arthur Rankin, Jr and Jules Bass – who were famous for making stop-motion holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town and many more between 1960 and 1980.

Though it was done in traditional 2D animation, not stop-motion, The First Easter Rabbit tells a story somewhat based on The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. In the special, a little girl gets a stuffed rabbit for Christmas and calls him “Stuffy.” Unfortunately, she gets Scarlet Fever and her doctor orders all of her clothes and toys taken away and burned in case they may be carrying the disease on them and thus prevent her from getting better. Stuffy the stuffed rabbit is saved by a fairy who brings him to life and sends him off to Easter Valley – a magical place at the North Pole where it’s always springtime.

Unfortunately, a mean-hearted person called Zero doesn’t like the fact that he can’t make it snow in Easter Valley. Zero is in charge of keeping the North Pole cold and seems to have control issues. He knows there’s a magic flower in the valley that keeps the winter away, but he can’t find a way into the valley to steal it.

With help from some rabbit friends Stuffy meets on the way to the valley, and a little help from Santa Claus, Stuffy finds a way to bring baskets of Easter goodies to the kids in the town with the little girl, who has gotten better.

Though The First Easter Rabbit isn’t my favorite of the Rankin/Bass productions of the era, I have to admit that I hadn’t seen it since it aired in the mid-70s. And it was nice to be able to share its message of hope and celebration with my two daughters. And it’s tough to beat Burl Ives, who not only narrates the show, but sings the song “The Easter Parade.” There’s something magical about Ives’ voice, who was a part of many of the Rankin/Bass productions.

If you’re looking for a good Easter gift, pick up a copy of The First Easter Rabbit, Deluxe Edition and hide it away for next year’s Easter basket!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other Easter treats below!

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Music Review: Behave Yourself (Dig)[EP] – Cold War Kids

Hi there!

The Cold War Kids was formed just a few years ago in California and doesn’t seem to have taken much of a break since 2004. They have even been quoted saying with as often as they’re on tour “Why even have apartments?” CWK seems to thrive on live performances, rather than wanting to be regularly in the studio.

Behave Yourself (Dig) is a collection of four songs and a jam session that didn’t make it onto their Robbers & Cowards or Loyalty to Loyalty albums or their many EPs released since 2005. The band consists of Matt Aveiro on drums, Matt Maust on bass, Jonnie Bo Russell on guitar and Nathan Willett on vocals and piano. And based on these four songs, I have to say they have a unique sound that crosses boundaries.

“An Audience of One” opens the EP with Willett exploring his great range while not listening to the advice proposed by the EP title… Tough to “Behave Yourself” when singing lyrics like “Reach out and point a finger / And touch the globe / Spin around and where it stops / You’ve got to pack your bags and go…” Sounds good to me, but easier to do when you’re young and free!

From there we progress to “Coffee Spoon” with its easy pop guitar and percussion backing Willett’s smooth lyrics once again. This one’s meaning is a bit darker though, perhaps in response to some of the economic troubles the world has been seeing. He sings “my indulgence is a joke / and while everyone laughs / I’m clipping coupons / and saving my breath…” The upbeat music mixed with the messages of consumption and the mismatch with how the voice of the song actually feels makes this one stand out.

Santa Ana Winds” is my favorite of the four songs. Like “Coffee Spoon” it mixes upbeat and almost happy melodies and percussion with observations of the gritty California world around them. “Easter on Olvera Street / Girls nursing new babies in alleyways / In between is a basin like the great divide…” showing the disconnect between different sides of the same street all too familiar to most inner cities today. Socially conscious rock songs make me feel that younger generations actually have the hope to see a change in their lifetime.

And the last song, “Sermons vs. the Gospel,” continues the socially deep trend, but this time slowing it down to almost a Southern Church feel stripped down to a few bare instruments and voices. “Got this idea in my head and I can’t get it out / cause all your money and all your culture / I can surely live without…” Begging for mercy from the lord in a world where the rich get richer and the poor keep getting poorer…

Having never heard of the Cold War Kids before, I have to say I’m impressed. Solid music and lyrics that make you stop and think. There may be hope yet.

For more details about CWK, their touring schedule, and previous releases be sure to check out their website at www.coldwarkids.com.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this CWK EP and other albums at Amazon!

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