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The Ballroom Thieves: A Wolf in the Doorway
by George Graham
(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/10/2015)
It may be a reaction to, or perhaps intended as an antidote for, the automated, artificial, electronically generated commercial pop that dominates the media, or perhaps it’s another example of what goes around comes around, but we are hearing a lot of acoustic guitars, banjos, hand percussion and other folk instruments being adopted by emerging young bands these days. That’s something that can make an old folkie feel pretty good about the direction of at least some of the trendy music happening these days. The commercial success of Mumford & Sons, who ironically have just dispensed with their banjo, and mandolin on their new album, and groups like the Avett Brothers who bring a degree of alternative rock energy to strumming acoustic guitars and the like, are serving as the inspiration for a lot of groups who unplug but still manage to rock out in their own way. This week we have another notable example, The Ballroom Thieves, who have just released their debut CD called A Wolf at the Doorway.
The Ballroom Thieves are from Boston and are a trio, and like other such acoustic alternative groups, have somewhat unconventional instrumentation – guitar, cello, and scaled back percussion, rather than a typical set of drums.
The group got its start when guitarist Martin Earley and percussionist Devin Mauch started playing together in their dorm room on their Boston area college campus around 2010, with Mauch playing a djembe, an African drum. They eventually picked up a cello player and but not long ago Calen Peters replaced the original cellist. Since they graduated, the band has been performing fairly steadily, and have been working on their material, which has evolved into something fairly distinctive. Stylistically, the group definitely shows their alternative rock-generation background, but lyrically, they write like a lot of the folkies of the past with intelligent and yet often poetically vague verse, with a number of variations on the love song. They also go in for vocal harmonies that should help to increase cross-generational appeal. While Earley, Mauch and Peters make up the bulk of the sound on the album, a number of additional players were brought in for some tracks including violin, banjo, keyboards, and trumpet. But the sound is always organic, having the atmosphere of a bunch of people getting together to jam, in a way, rather than being a bigger production.
The CD leads off with a piece called Archers, which is a good summary of the Ballroom Thieves’ sound, musically and lyrically. There’s the energy level of the alternative rock scene with acoustic instruments including the cello and the scaled back drum sound. One can hear echoes of Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers. <<>>
Martin Earley does play some electric guitar in places. The song Lantern features the plugged in guitar and the track turns out to be one of the album’s highlights, with its interesting take on love-song lyrics. <<>>
In listening to the album, I realized that The Ballroom Thieves like waltzes, or songs in three-or six-beat rhythms. Their song called Bullet is one of several, which also brings up their energy level though in an acoustic context. <<>> But for the song’s finale, the band turns it up further and puts into tune into a rock beat. <<>>
Saint Monica shows the band’s folky side, and is also in waltz time. Music and lyrics combine to make a tune that is both interesting but also rocks out acoustically. <<>>
Cellist Calin Peters describes herself as a reluctant singer, nervous at the prospect of being out front singing the lead vocals. Perhaps that may be why there are few tunes with Ms. Peters on lead vocal, but she is featured on the song called Bury Me Smiling and does a great job. <<>>
The group acknowledges its predilection for waltz time in a piece which is called The Loneliness Waltz, one of the more contemplative sounding tracks, and another of the album’s more memorable tunes. <<>>
The album ends with its most rock-oriented track, Wolf, with a plugged-in guitar and some guests on banjo and horns. The musical style is appropriate for the lyrics. <<>>
The Boston area trio The Ballroom Thieves on their debut album The Wolf in the Doorway create an impressive recording by a group who are riding the pleasant tide of acoustic alternative bands. On their website, they describe themselves as “a rock band in a folk suit.” They make good use of their distinctive instrumentation with guitar, cello and percussion, and are not afraid to go electric on the guitar from time to time. Even when they are acoustic, the band’s rock energy level comes though. The musicianship is quite good, their vocals are strong, especially when they do harmonies, though reluctant singer cellist Calin Peters should do more lead vocals.
Our grade for sound quality is bout an A-minus. The sonic clarity could have been a bit better, but this recording, though needlessly volume-compressed, is not as bad as many in squashing out the dynamics of the performance.
Some might consider the rise of the acoustic alternative bands as yet another fad on the ever changing contemporary music scene, but with groups of the caliber the Ballroom Thieves taking advantage of the space created by some of the popular bands in the field, I think there is lot of room for that and it makes for music that can be appreciated by multiple generations.
(c) Copyright 2015 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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