Signup for a folk alley account

Here's what's Hot (and already in Fresh Cuts); And Here's what's on the spot.

June 12, 2007

As you might guess, I review LOTs of new releases, often 20 a week. Since I've been listening to the latest for over 30 years, like it or not, I'm in a position to notice invention and xeroxes. The use of poetic devices, implied themes, clever arrangements, and the like are always a plus, but let's focus on originality. These impressions may or may not reflect our entire staff.


Dynamo Laura Love cannot be imitated. Her roots-rock funk-folk group is cutting edge and entertaining. Continuing to stay one step ahead of her audience, Negrass presents a whole new band (Scott Vestal, Tim O'Brien, even another bassist, Mike Bub). Laura recently went on a search of her family history; her great grandmother survived slavery for example, and migrated north (Check out the song Saskatchewan). This album demanded lots of research and preparation and it shows. Even old warhorses like Shady Grove are presented so differently, its almost as if it's a new song. Even though she's gone bluegrass here, the energy ROCKS; you could dance to the whole album and check out the lyrics on the 3rd or 4th listen. Then you'll never tire of it.


Is this Celtic or Middle Eastern? Wait a minute... aren't The McDades from Alberta? I saw this group stun the Folk Alliance crowd in Nashville a few years ago and today they are even better. A family band with years of experience,
you cannot pigeon-hole them. Their instrumentals start with an Irish flair, but feature jazz like solos and arrangements. The melodies seem influenced by Eastern European style time signatures, often featuring bass solos, and Jeremiah McDade almost cannot contain himself on flutes and whistles. He just explodes. The group has male and female lead singers, good song selection, and they don't copy what they listen to.

joe craven.jpg

This one came out in 2005 but we just got it. All instrumental, each selection is a fusion of traditions from two different countries and features Joe on at least 7 instruments. You might hear Jamaica and Ireland, Africa and Appalachia, or a tune like 'Turkey in the Straw' the way Frenchmen Django Reinhardt might have played it. David Grisman calls Craven the world's most versatile sideman, and this time it's Joe who has plenty of help (Mike Marshall, Jim Boggio) though he barely needs them! Try to contain yourself listening to this, and be thankful you don't have my job trying to figure out which tunes NOT to play on Folk Alley!


Two words: SLOW DOWN. If everything is in high gear all the time, then there's no place to go. There's also the risk of every song sounding the same. Yes, speed is fun, but style is better. The Hackensaws own all the right instruments, now they need to give them a chance to breathe. Start with composition - writing or choosing songs with a message. Tell us the story in a colorful way; use imagery. It's often a good idea to hire a producer who doesn't know your material; a fresh set of ears will open yours. There were a couple gems on the last album, especially High Faller about witnessing a death. This was very moving, and demonstrates that the ingredients are there. The Hackensaws will get better, but not if they rush things.

bob mccarthy.jpg

I'm guessing Bob attended Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peace music camp in Ohio, because he sounds just like Jorma. The trouble is, we already have Jorma. Too many of these songs have been chosen too many times. (Deep River Blues, Sittin' On Top of The World, Keep on the Sunny Side, Pallet on the Floor.) Unfortunately, each version sounds too much like Doc Watson's or Jorma's. If you're going to tackle one of these songs, change it. Put it in a different key, add other instruments, make it YOURS. Listen to Harry Manx tackle Sittin' on Top, or Laura Love's arrangement of Shady Grove. Recording familiar songs demands reinvention. There's nothing wrong with going to a restaurant and trying to make the same meal at home. There's no need, however, to make it for us. We can go to the same restaurant. It's obvious Bob knows how to cook. I want to taste his recipes!

chocolate drops.jpg
(On the Spot...)

I often tell Linda Fahey that I listen to every CD the same way I attend every movie. I do not pretend to be neutral. I expect to like it. What other way is there to live? If I'm disappointed, so be it, but I don't walk in the door with a scowl. When the Chocolate Drops played Merlefest in April, I rushed to the stage to see them. I left after three songs. Old music played the same old way - they danced, but nothing looked very challenging. I thought the album might be different, but there's nothing there that isn't already in our library on other CDs or records. They're being touted as an "African American string band" and that's fine, but what makes the Chocolate Drops special? This question need to be answered before the next recording. I'm afraid we've already received this one several times.

Jim Blum

Posted by Jim Blum at June 12, 2007 7:11 PM


I can see you looked at the CD and maybe listen to a few seconds of each cut but I don't think you listened to it. Jorma never did Pallet On the Floor and there are two original versions of this song on the CD. I love these songs because they influenced me and I always wanted to do them. So I did. There are original songs on the CD, including the instrumental "Walkin" that you did not mention. I was actually surprised you mentioned the CD at all. So thanks. The food is always good at my house and I never had a guest leave because we served the same recipes. Of coarse a guest that would do that would be rude. Thanks Jim for your comments. After forty years in the music business nothing phases me but I do appreciate the opportunity you gave me. All the best , Bob

Posted by: Bob McCarthy at June 13, 2007 4:49 PM

If you're involved in trying to keep traditional music alive, you can definitely feel like you're being pulled in different directions at once. For some it's about trying to make it their own, maybe pulling stuff from that style into original compositions. But sometimes it's really about getting it right, playing it the way it was passed down to you, holding onto the things about it that pulled you into it in the first place.

Doing new things with old instruments does show creativity and reach, but somebody has to keep the old stuff going the way it's been played for ages. It's two different metrics of quality, and I don't think an album should have to display both to be considered worthwhile.

Posted by: Joan Kennedy at June 22, 2007 1:38 PM

My former father-in-law used to refer to traditional Irish music as "that diddeley-diddeley sh*t." Not Irish, not a fan, obviously. To him it all sounded alike, but if you asked him about the differences between two different Italian tenors' versions of Vincero, he'd have gone on at length. To someone who prefers cutting-edge stuff, "the same old stuff done the same old way" would probably always be pretty boring. However, if posted reviews are going to be a regular feature here (and I kind of hope they are), and if there are any preservationists on staff, maybe they could review the more traditional stuff. It does take having a taste for it to get the nuanced differences between two artists' performances of an old piece of music. And an Internet folk site can do so much to keep the old music going.

Posted by: Joan Kennedy at June 22, 2007 7:17 PM

Joan - I couldn't have said it better.


Posted by: Bob McCarthy at June 22, 2007 9:01 PM

For the record, while we are very excited about Jim's reviews, we don't all agree with him entirely. Linda really likes Bob's CD and I am very fond of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I saw them at MerleFest and it was their traditionalism that I found so engaging. There is something very intriguing about going back to the origins of music and discovering how it sounded then. I think Jim is missing that point - it doesn't matter who the Chocolate Drops are now because they aren't really a 21st century band. And the beginning of something often tells a very different, and interesting story - a pureness that dissipates over the generations.

Posted by: Ann E VerWiebe at June 25, 2007 10:03 AM

Jim is up against an interesting problem here. Sometimes I listen to old-time music, and occasionally will sit in on an old-time jam. Just chording along, since my lead picking can't keep up the pace even if I actually know the tune. This is the question for FA reviewers I guess: In a musical form where blending in is what's important, how is a reviewer supposed to pick a standout, since you can't review everything and since praise is supposed to mean something? Like Jim was maybe getting at, you can point to obscure selections, or weirdly innovative fusions of different forms, or arrangements that step off tradition enough to let you display monster chops. But in old-time, none of those things necessarily factor in with the CD that, for whatever ineffable quality it has, somehow bears repeated listening. Sometimes it's just something in the tone that pulls you in, sometimes you find it hypnotic and have no idea why.

When somebody is buying an old-time CD, it's often to have something to play along with so they can practice and eventually sit in on jams. In that case, the simpler the better, and the more well-known the collection of tunes, the better. That would seem to fight the purpose of finding standouts and pointing to them as "hot." But some kind of "hot" is important. The reviewer listens to scads of releases because most buyers can't, so what's the best stance to take on a traditional old-time release? Maybe the question is, what does traditional music need for its continued ability to exist in our culture, and how can reviewing help it?

Posted by: Joan Kennedy at June 25, 2007 11:43 AM

Reviews are simply an individual's opinion. I read them, but never let them alter my listening habits, except for raves. On a few occasions I have been prompted to listen to something simply because someone raved on about it. However, a few reviews from the same person usually gives you a flavor of what they like and what impresses them, and I have NEVER been totally in agreement with any reviewer I have ever read. I may occasionally agree with one, , but not all the time. We all have our own likes and dislikes and I won't let others dictate to me what is good or bad.

Jim really has an obvious interest in youth and a very high level of musicianship, and also likes reinvention of old ideas. That is simply his taste. There is not wrong with that, it is just what he seems to prefer.

Posted by: Jack Swain at June 25, 2007 12:00 PM

Plus, Jim is listening for music to put on Folk Alley - not for people to play along with or to play as a CD. He has to be very focused on single, quality songs with the constant influx of music across his desk. And, he really wanted to "be real" with reviews, making then true critiques.

Posted by: Ann E VerWiebe at June 25, 2007 12:21 PM

Registered users can post comments in the blog. Please register or log in to share your views.

Support Folk Alley During Our Spring Fund Drive!


Recent Topics

Video Premiere: The Weepies, 'No Trouble'
Album Review: Lord Huron, 'Strange Trails'
Album Review: Laura Marling, 'Short Movie'
Important information about your Folk Alley account
Album Review: Brandi Carlile, 'The Firewatcher's Daughter'
A Q & A with Martin Sexton
Win Tickets To See Shakey Graves at the Beachland Ballroom
Hear It First - The Pine Hill Project, 'Tomorrow You're Going'
Album Review: The Decemberists, 'What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World'
PLAYLIST: Folk Alley nationally syndicated radio show #150305
Hear It First - Pharis & Jason Romero, 'A Wanderer I'll Stay'
Folk Alley Presents 'Heaven Adores You' at the Cleveland International Film Festival
Video Premiere: Joel Rafael, "Thanks for the Smiles"
PLAYLIST: Folk Alley nationally syndicated radio show #150226
Album Review: Robert Earl Keen, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions
PLAYLIST: Folk Alley nationally syndicated radio show #150219
Song Premiere: Joe Pug, "The Measure"
Album Review: The Bros. Landreth, 'Let It Lie'
A Q & A with Nora Jane Struthers
Album Review: Andrew Combs, 'All These Dreams'
A Q & A with Rhiannon Giddens
Album Review: Caroline Spence, 'Somehow'
Hear It First - Elana James, 'Black Beauty'
PLAYLIST - Folk Alley nationally syndicated weekly radio show #150212
It Takes Two - Ten Classic Duets for Valentine's Day
PLAYLIST - Folk Alley nationally syndicated weekly radio show #150205
Song Premiere: Ryan Culwell, 'I Think I'll Be Their God"
Hear It First - Jorma Kaukonen, 'Ain't In No Hurry'
Album Review: Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors, 'Medicine'
PLAYLIST - Folk Alley nationally syndicated weekly radio show #150129



March 2015
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31            

March 2015

February 2015

January 2015

December 2014

October 2014

September 2014

August 2014

July 2014

June 2014

April 2014

March 2014

February 2014

January 2014

December 2013

November 2013

October 2013

September 2013

August 2013

July 2013

June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

December 2012

November 2012

October 2012

September 2012

August 2012

July 2012

June 2012

May 2012

April 2012

March 2012

February 2012

January 2012

December 2011

November 2011

October 2011

September 2011

August 2011

July 2011

June 2011

May 2011

April 2011

March 2011

February 2011

January 2011

December 2010

November 2010

October 2010

September 2010

August 2010

July 2010

May 2010

April 2010

March 2010

February 2010

January 2010

December 2009

November 2009

October 2009

September 2009

August 2009

July 2009

June 2009

May 2009

April 2009

March 2009

February 2009

January 2009

December 2008

November 2008

October 2008

September 2008

August 2008

July 2008

June 2008

May 2008

April 2008

March 2008

February 2008

January 2008

December 2007

November 2007

October 2007

September 2007

August 2007

July 2007

June 2007

May 2007

April 2007

March 2007

February 2007

January 2007

December 2006

November 2006

October 2006

September 2006

August 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

December 2005

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

January 2005

December 2004

November 2004

October 2004

September 2004

August 2004

July 2004

June 2004

May 2004

April 2004

March 2004

February 2004

January 2004

December 2003

November 2003

October 2003

September 2003

August 2003