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Review: Fishtank Ensemble ~ Woman in Sin

January 27, 2011

Fishtank Ensemble Woman In Sin.jpgby Jim Blum

Fishtank Ensemble
Woman in Sin

One look at the cover of this CD and you have to at least listen. The four players are probably not in costume, but they look like they are, each holding their instruments and looking like they are about to fly - without a plane. When you do listen you'll understand why. This music is so fast, (sometimes too fast) that you'll feel like YOU are about to take off.

They define themselves as a high energy gypsy band from California. They blend Romanian, Turkish, gypsy jazz, Flamenco, Balkan, and Tango. The lineup is basically 2 violins, guitar, and slap bass, though other musicians make guest appearances. Fiddler, and apparent leader, Ursula Knudson doubles on something called a banjolele. She also sings - on some numbers "Betty Boop" style like Christina Maars of the Asylum Street Spankers. Knudson's singing on "Espagnolette" is really wild - almost an operatic scat which morphs out of her musical saw - at first listen you can't tell the saw from the singer. She can sing in Romanian, French, Japanese, as well as in her native English.

Djordje Stijepovic slaps his bass throughout; they ought to pay him double because with him they don't need a drummer. He's good. Douglas Smolens plays guitar, and Fabrice Martinez is the prime violinist - that is when he isn't back in France traveling by Caravan collecting songs (true story). It's a little hard to keep up with the albums pace, but I bet it would be a hoot to see them live.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 4:58 PM

Review: Elixir ~ Rampant

January 23, 2011

Elixir Rampant.jpgby Jim Blum


They may not be known much outside of the New England Contra dance scene, but this group's albums are so good, they should thrill dancers (or listeners) all over the country. Not only are the melodies mostly original, so are the instruments and arrangements.

How many dance bands feature brass? Along with the fiddle and guitar, you'll hear trumpet and trombone, and it's not for a gimmick. The horns really fit and you'll probably catch yourself looking forward to their next appearance in the song.

Along with surprising instrument choices, the mix of traditions is also unusual. "Cordonneir/Beeswax/Sheepskin" is a prime example. The tune merges Celtic, French Canadian, and Swing Jazz. Those who favor one of the three will not be disappointed in the authenticity of any of these styles. Elixir is diverse.

There's even a Spanish flavored piece, "Calle Cespedes," inspired by a 5 month stay in Sevilla, Spain. There isn't much singing, except when Anna Patton takes on "Mama Don't Allow," the traditional "show off" tune in which each instrument is asked by the singer to solo. This is a long song, because there are a lot of players to go around.

This is one of those albums that you hope never ends.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:20 AM | Comments (2)

Review: Lynn Miles ~ Fall for Beauty

January 20, 2011

Lynn Miles Fall for Beauty.jpgby Jim Blum

Lynn Miles
Fall for Beauty
(True North)

Unlike Jonathan Byrd (in my last review), Lynn Miles didn't have to travel to Canada to record her new album Fall for Beauty; that's where she is from. Lynn is one of those singers with a catch in her voice, which often echoes a catch in her poetry. She has a knack for catching her listeners off guard with an unexpected shift in tempo or lyrics. In the song "Save Me," for example, it isn't until half way through the song that you realize the person worthy of the saving has run off. Ouch.

Much of the album is contemporary, bordering on AAA, but we found a handful of gems. "Goodbye," the album's final song, is a duet with Jim Bryson. Lynn and Jim play the part of lovers who have intellectually come to the conclusion that it's time to call it quits. As they trade verses, their reasoning is sensible, but of course inside both are filled with regret and second thoughts.

If you happen to be a struggling musician, you'll dig "Three Chords and the Truth" which explains quite clearly the price you pay to sing. The best song in both melody and message is "I Will." This is not only a declaration that it's time to return to a time of better spirit, it is a decision to take action. Let's hope we all can come to the same conclusion.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:20 AM

Review: Jonathan Byrd ~ Cackalack

January 18, 2011

Jonathan Byrd Cackalack.jpgby Jim Blum

Jonathan Byrd

You are not about to read of Jonathan Byrd the PGA golfer, nor am I going to tell you about the guy who owns the popular cafeteria in Indiana. This Jonathan Byrd is a guitarist, writer, and singer from North Carolina, a guy who Folk Alley has been playing for several years. His new release, the oddly titled Cackalack is much more rootsy than his previous releases, and sometimes quite bluegrassy.

Cackalacky is vernacular poetry for Carolina. The songs are rooted in the simple joys or upsetting events that strike a chord with this musician or anyone who lives in this state. Ironically, the album was recorded in Ontario, but very authentically -- in a converted garage studio, with no overdubs, second takes, or audio sweetening of any kind. Apparently Jonathan was touring in Canada, and has close friends there, and the album was somewhat spur of the moment.

If that's true, we are lucky the tape was rolling because a couple of gems were captured.

"I Was an Oak Tree" is the album's most stirring song, eloquently detailing all the wonderful things made from oak. The song not only cites examples, but it takes us through history. Byrd is able to command such respect for the tree that you feel like applauding it. "Father's Day" presents another moment of honesty, this one more personal. Jonathan sings very directly about his late father, recalling for most of us the desire to please our Dads.

"Scuppernog" is another example of southern vernacular, and speaks of life's final moments, from connection to release. The album's title, "Cackalack!" is a road song of absolute delight. Simply driving down the back roads of North Carolina is a thrill, but when you roll down the window to talk to someone, you jet back to a time when we were all much friendlier, less complicated, and more accepting. This album is the next best thing to being there.

Posted by Jim Blum at 8:02 PM

Exclusive First Listen: Abigail Washburn's 'City of Refuge'

January 7, 2011

NPR Music and Folk Alley present an exclusive First Listen of Abigail Washburn's highly anticipated new CD release, City of Refuge! Be among the first to hear the entire CD before its release date on Jan. 11th. 

CLICK HERE to listen to the complete CD, in its entirety, or sample each individual track one by one. 

by Elena See --

Isn’t there a saying about best laid plans going awry? Well, Abigail Washburn had a plan — and it was a good, solid plan. She was going to head to Beijing,  study law and continue to make music on the side. Instead, she got a record deal, her group Uncle Earl took off and her debut solo recording, The Song of the Traveling Daughter, blew everyone away. In this case, it was a best laid plan that got better.

Once again, Washburn is changing lanes in the musical world: "This new project," she says, "incorporates what would've in the beginning of my career seemed like an unexpected move." That move takes her outside of the her comfortable folk and roots sound and pushes her toward a more rock and pop feel. She chose the ideal producer for this journey in Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Spoon, Sufjan Stevens).

City of Refuge showcases Washburn's lyrics and voice more than her previous recordings. In "Burn Through," she convincingly plays a tough character who isn't "going down with the rest of you." She also sparkles in the role of a troubled soul trying to figure things out in "Last Train," which also features a remarkable turn by fiddler Rayna Gellert.

Washburn still showcases her signature clawhammer banjo playing on City of Refuge. Those moments are mixed with quietly lush orchestration ("Bring Me My Queen"), standout guitar riffs from Bill Frisell, a guzheng (a Chinese zither) played by master Wu Fei, and backing vocals from Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor and Morgan Jahnig.

Washburn says she wanted to make an album where everyone could find some sense of belonging, and she did it. Just listen to the title track: There's something so pleasing about how the plucky intro unfolds into a story about someone who, ready for a new beginning, sets out to find that elusive "City of Refuge" that we all need every now and again.

City of Refuge will be available for streaming in its entirety through its release on Jan. 11.

Listen Here!




Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:40 AM

Folk Alley Best of 2010 Listener Poll Results

January 4, 2011

Best of 2010 Stream.jpg For two weeks in December, we provided our listeners an opportunity to vote for their 10 most favorite CDs heard on Folk Alley in 2010. Since Folk Alley presents such a wide mix of folk, roots and Americana music that includes everything from traditional and contemporary singer songwriters, Celtic, bluegrass and newgrass, AAA, indie-folk, blues, World music and more...we were curious to see what our listeners would vote for as their favorites. Well the vote are in, and the top 10 vote-getters from Folk Alley listeners include the 2010 releases by:

  • Carolina Chocolate Drops,
  • Crooked Still,
  • Patty Griffin,
  • Natalie Merchant,
  • Red Horse (Gilkyson, Gorka & Kaplansky),
  • Mumford and Sons,
  • Andrew and Noah Van Norstrand,
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter,
  • Lonesome River Band, and
  • Jakob Dylan.
To see the complete list of the Folk Alley Listener Poll Top 25 for 2010 - click here.

Thumbnail image for Best of 2010 montage.jpgThe Listener Poll results, together with Folk Alley host and staff Favorite CDs of 2010 were all compiled to generate Folk Alley's Best Folk Music of 2010 side stream. In the end, we came up with a great 9+ hour side stream of the best folk and roots music released in 2010.

Click here to listen to the Best of 2010 side stream!

This special side stream is also available on Folk Alley's Droid app and will be available for the month of January.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 7:44 PM | Comments (1)

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