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(Signature Sounds 2076 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/9/2012)
Someone once said that all the good songs have already been written, and by implication, new songs are just a variation of the old themes. That seems to be the case in one musical sector: a kind of eclectic folk blend that combines traditional elements with imaginative arrangements. For decades, singer-songwriters have ruled in the folk world, but there has been a notable trend over the past few years toward reviving the old folk songs, often taking them in very different, non-traditional directions. This seems especially true with old Gospel songs, which have been revived, and then morphed into sometimes into very different musical character by a generally younger generation of artists. Acoustic groups like Ollabelle and Crooked Still, along rockers like Mike Ferris and even Bruce Springteen have mined the repository of old spirituals and given them decidedly different twists over the past several years.
This week we have another very good example of people with imagination taking on old spirituals and casting them in a new light. It's Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, and their new recording is called Some Bright Morning, named after a line in the old Gospel song I'll Fly Away.
Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem have been together in the Boston area for some twelve years now. Previous to that, Ms. Arbo was vocalist in the bluegrass band Salamander Crossing. Right from the start, Daisy Mayhem used their largely acoustic instruments to produce eclectic backing to old songs, though they also have written a healthy collection of original music.
It has been five years since their last recording, Big Old Life, which was a kind of celebration of life after Ms. Arbo recovered from breast cancer. Since then, the band has been touring fairly regularly, and their intent on this CD was to capture the feeling of the band in performance. So they recorded almost everything essentially live in the studio, with everybody in the same room, using a fair number of first takes. They facetiously refer to their music as agnostic Gospel. But in addition to the traditional songs, there are two originals by Ms. Arbo and several others by members of the group. Almost all have the quality of sounding like a old traditional song. In addition to Ms. Arbo, who plays fiddle as well as guitar, are Anand Nayuk on lead guitar, Andrew Kinsey on bass and banjo, and Scott Kessel who plays a percussion set consisting of essentially found items, such as an old suitcase for a bass drum, a cardboard box, tin cans and the like. Though Ms. Arbo was the vocal focus when the band first started, this album is strong on vocal harmonies and a number of the songs feature others in the group taking the vocal lead.
Of the traditional songs, many are familiar to folk music fans, including I'll Fly Away, East Virginia, which was a popular folk song back in the 1960s folk music days, and Travelin' Shoes. Like many of the old songs, there is a theme of death and mortality to many of them, but ultimately optimism or hope. The more contemporary songs on the CD include a Bruce Springsteen cover which the band puts into its folky/bluesy/Gospel mode, and the original songs In each case, old song or contemporary, the group puts a fair amount of creativity into their treatment, and the results are generally upbeat enough to inspire one to get up and move.
Opening is another familiar spiritual, Hear Jerusalem Moan which is given an infectiously rhythmic treatment with strong vocal harmonies. <<>>
The first of the original songs is one of the slower pieces on this generally upbeat recording. Bridges, by Ms. Arbo was inspired by the consequences Hurricane Irene and how it lead to the breakup of a friend's marriage. <<>>
I'll Fly Away, the song which contains the line that is taken as the CD's title, "Some Bright Morning," is given a danceable, swingy treatment, with a little ukulele in the accompaniment. It also makes a good sing-along. <<>>
Guitarist Anand Nayuk does the lead vocal on the group's rearrangement of Bruce Springsteen's Reason to Believe, a song that fits into the album's lyrical theme of tribulation and ultimately hope. <<>>
The group can get bluesy at times. Will Your House Be Blessed another Gospel style song is given a wonderfully slinky blues-tinged reading. <<>>
Even bluesier is Johnny Brown which is a traditional song from the Georgia Sea Islands. It has a combination of a rustic sound along with a kind of rock sensibility. <<>>
Ms. Arbo created music for a poem by Tennyson. Crossing the Bar is one of the most attractive songs on the CD, with its simple musical setting and Ms. Arbo's authentically hymn-like melody. <<>>
One of the more creative arrangements of an old song is on the traditional piece East Virginia another song familiar to those who remember the 1960s folk revival. Anand Nayak does the lead vocal. <<>>
The CD ends with a song that has been picked up by a number of the folk-revisionists, Travelin' Shoes. Arbo and Daisy Mayhem do one of the most creative arrangements of it I have heard. <<>>
Some Bright Morning the new CD from New England-based Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem is another in a series of recordings in recent years that take up old folk songs, and especially old spirituals, doing very non-traditional arrangements, even though the instrumentation is mainly acoustic. Ms. Arbo and company have been doing this for most of the band's dozen years together, and they remain at the top of their game, though their output is rather infrequent. The group combines creativity with a very appealing sound, and a kind of underlying positive nature. Their musicianship is not only quite commendable, but the combination of sounds, along with the improvised percussion instruments, further adds to the charm.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." The sound is warm and immediate, and the mix captures the subtleties of the group. They acknowledge their engineer/co-producer Chris Rival, for providing the right environment in the studio, and recording almost everything live together in the same room. The CD captures a moderate portion of the dynamics, the loud and soft of the music -- it's not too heavily compressed, but could have been a bit more transparent in that respect.
If you like to hear the old songs with a new twist, Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem's new CD Some Bright Morning is definitely a treat.
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