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The Pines: Above the Prairie
by George Graham
(Red House Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/3/2016)
With the proliferation of electronically-instrumented computer generated, synthesized pop with vocals that might as well be sung by a poorly-designed robot voice, it’s no wonder that the roots rock scene is thriving, getting back to the basics with folk, country and blues influences, strumming guitars and nary a synthesizer to be found, with a sound that is ipso facto as direct and honest as possible. This week we have the latest album by a band that serves up a curious hybrid of folky roots rock with a generous helping of ambient new-age style synthesizers, with interesting and gratifying results. The band is called The Pines and their new, fourth album is called Above the Prairie.
The Pines are a family band. At their core are a pair of brothers who are second generation musicians. They were originally from Iowa, and are currently based in Minneapolis. The Pines formed in 2008 and have developed a following in the Midwest and around the Twin Cities. Benson and Alex Ramsey are the sons of Bo Ramsey, known as the long-time musical colleague and producer for songwriter Greg Brown. Benson Ramsey and guitarist and co-lead vocalist David Huckfelt are the two principal songwriters. Alex Ramsey plays mainly keyboards as does his brother Benson, and neither are afraid of using synthesizers to make atmospheric sonic ambiances. Alex and Benson’s father Bo Ramsey serves as co-producer of the album with the band. The Pines’ lyrics are more like that of a folkie with poetic imagery, while the band’s sound is the curious but appealing mix of the folk, roots rock with steel guitar, banjo and the like, plus the synthesizers that would not be out of place on a Yanni record. And to prove that those airy synthesizers are at the core of the band’s sound, there are two instrumental pieces on the album.
In addition to the Ramsey brothers and Huckfelt, others appearing on the album include bassist James Buckley and drummer JT Bates, who was the house drummer on Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion for a while. There are a few additional guests on banjo, electric guitar, fiddle and the Irish Uillean pipes. The album also features an appearance by Native American poet and activist John Trudell, who appears in the closing track.
This combination of sounds is definitely off the beaten path, but not unprecedented. The Pines sound as if they were influenced by the solo albums by Mark Knopfler, who founded the group Dire Straits. Knopfler’s combination comes at it the other way, with a sophisticated instrumental sound to which is added the folk aspect. The Pines approach what they do with the root of it being the folky material, to which is added the atmospheric textures.
Leading off is a piece called Aerial Ocean which illustrates the group’s intriguing ethereal folk sound. <<>>
Showing their Mark Knopfler influence is the following track There in Spirit, which also balances the spacey synthesizers with a somewhat lugubrious folk-style song. <<>>
The first of the two instrumentals on the album is called Lost Nation which could have come from a New Age electronic album. It’s not exactly the most substantial piece on the record, but has a pleasing sound. <<>>
The Pines go in a somewhat different direction on a song called Here, which features the contribution of a chorus of musical guests and friends, including Bo Ramsey, Pieta Brown, Greg Brown’s singer-songwriter daughter, and Iris Dement. <<>>
Showing their poetic folkie aspect is the track called Where Something Wild Still Grows. There are some great lines in the song, while the Mark Knopfler sonic influence is clearly evident. <<>>
Sleepy Hollow is another of the tracks that successfully combines old-fashioned-styled folkie lyrics with the atmospheric texture which fits well with the words. <<>>
The one track that is rather a throwaway is the second of the instrumentals, Villisca. Though it has an Irish Uillean piper, the piece is a kind of New Age music cliché. <<>>
Above the Prairie ends with Time Dreams, which features a recited poem by Native American artist John Trudell. It seems a little out of place on this album. <<>>
Above the Prairie, the new fourth release by the Iowa and Minnesota based group The Pines is an interesting and sonically pleasing mix of roots rock with folk-influenced lyrics, with a big atmospheric sound thanks to the ubiquitous synthesizers. It seems as if it should be a kind of musical culture clash, but it works out surprisingly well, and for the most part the music is engaging, intriguing and appealing. The compositions are generally worthwhile both musically and lyrically. One might ask for a bit more pleasing vocals at times, but David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey’s alternating vocals can remind one of aspects of latter day Bob Dylan or Mark Knopfler.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” There is plenty of sonic ambiance and reverb applied in the studio, but it’s tastefully done and the instrumental and vocal sounds are clean and warm. The dynamic range, how well the album reproduces the loud and soft of the music, is decent. The mix was fortunately not heavily compressed to artificially crank up the volume.
“Ambient folk” is a succinct way of describing the new album by The Pines. That combination might seem an unlikely one in concept, but the group though their high quality material and tasteful playing makes it work and in the process, comes up with an enjoyable listening.
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