So yeah, I kinda made up the genre "alt-stringband", but I think it fits well. There are a good number of groups taking the old stringband idea and ramping it up with avant-garde arrangements inspired by jazz listening and conservatory training. These two bands are some of the best examples of where traditional stringbands have been taken today.
Black Prairie. A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart.
2012. Sugar Hill Records.
By now, most people should know that Black Prairie is the "stringband" side project of Decemberist members accordionist Jenny Conlee-Drizzos (Sparklepony from Portlandia!), dobro multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, and bassist Nate Query (plus drummer John Moen). Portland roots scene stalwart John Neufeld (Jackstraw, Dolorean) rounds out the band, and Portland fiddler Annalisa Tornfelt steps up to the mic on the new disc, assuming lead vocal duties. She's got a gorgeous, ethereal voice, so it's great to hear Black Prairie bringing her more to the fore. Though the arrangements and compositions on the new album are notably complex and nuanced, really the key to Black Prairie is their insane blend of a hundred different cultural influences. In the space of one song, say "Dirty River Stomp," you can hear barrelhouse piano, old cartoon musical accompaniment, Parisian cafe nuances, and some grooved-out Zydeco accordion. "Taraf" features guest musicians Paul Beck on cimbalom (Hungarian hammered dulcimer associated with Roma music) and Irish pennywhistle player Hanz Araki and sounds like a full-blown Eastern European party. Perhaps the most interesting track conceptually is "34 Wishes," a riff-based folk jam that started off, according to Nate Query, as an attempt to put Mastodon's crushing heavy metal jams on to folk instruments. Hunting out strange musical influences in this new Black Prairie album becomes something of a fun game as you progress through it. But this hides the fact that only the best players can unite so many strange ideas into a cohesive whole. Don't try this at home folks, otherwise you end up with the gypsy-jazz-klezmer-slam-grass hybrids that seem to proliferate everywhere. Throughout all these madcap musical melanges, Annalisa Tornfelt's voice floats supreme. And the best tracks on the album are definitely the songs. "How Do You Ruin Me" got a ton of plays at our house before we got the advance copy, mainly because it's such a gorgeous, catchy song. "Little Song Bird" is another keeper, a great folk song that could fit on a lullaby album. "Rock of Ages" sounds like it could have come off a Sarah Jarosz album. Which makes sense since they're labelmates and have collaborated before. I guess the main point here is that Black Prairie is clearly having far too much fun rifling through each other's record collections for cool ideas to bother coming up with some kind of new genre definer for their music. Good thing too, who needs those phony genres anyway!
Black Prairie: Nowhere, Massachusetts
Real Vocal String Quartet. Four Little Sisters.
2012. Flower Note Records.
From the opening track of their new album, Four Little Sisters, Real Vocal String Quartet bring a stunning vision to their arrangements. The first song is an acoustic stringband re-envisioning of Regina Spektor's song "Machine," and I guarantee you haven't heard a cello, violin, or viola played this way before. Machine-gun stutters, growling, rippling rhythms that sound almost harmful to the instrument, and floating ethereal vocals. Sounds a bit out there, but these four women are grounded by the traditions and the instruments they've chosen, and the album has a remarkable consistency. The cello buzzes along, often treated like a bass instrument (actually this is a tradition itself from Appalachia, where early stringbands couldn't afford or couldn't carry around full string basses, so used cellos), the fiddles soar together in twin flights, and the viola spins between both axes, pulling down grumbling rhythms and smooth melodic runs at the same time. This is definitely the kind of band that must have formed at a music conservatory from virtuosic musicians who were chafing from the strictures of classical music. I can see them all gathered in a rehearsal room in the stuffy conservatory, happily poring over their lists of favorite songs from any genre and dreaming up ways to arrange these songs for the quartet. I've met two of the four members of Real Vocal String Quartet actually, both at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, and they're dedicated roots musicians with the kind of chops to pull off these lush arrangements. Nice folks too!
Four Little Sisters is all over the map in terms of influences. Malian wassoulou singer Oumou Sangare is given a tribute track, Brazilian songwriter Gilberto Gil is featured as well with an arrangement and translation of his song "Copo Vazio", there's a nod to Cajun music with a cool remake of the common song "Allons à Lafayette," Swedish roots crossover band Väsen gets a nod as well with "Falling Polska", and there's even a cover of David Byrne's "Knotty Pine". Fiddler Alisa Rose's composition, "Elephant Dreams" is another standout track, matching a lilting Celtic-ish melody with some really cool harmonies and counterpoint.
There's no doubt this is a masterful album from a group with great vision and a lot to say. Search it out for yourself and you'll find that these four musicians leave few stones unturned in their quest to bring new traditions into their chamber stringband.
Real Vocal String Quartet: Elephant Dreams