Monday, October 23, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1064: Mandolin Orange

The life of a music lover knows no down time, and so I find myself writing a review moments before I head out to see a live show.

Tonight I’m going to see the Canadian rockabilly/punk crossover band, “The Creepshow” at Logan’s Pub. If I’m lucky enough to find their new album at the merch table I’ll review that next along with the show. If not, well – I’ll review something else.

Speaking of reviewing something else, here’s one of my better discoveries from last year.

Disc 1064 is…Blindfaller
Artist: Mandolin Orange

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? A picture of a wildfire. My home province of BC gets its fair share of these.

How I Came To Know It: I think I read a review of this album and decided to check it out. Not that exciting of an origin story, but not everything can start with some guy getting bitten by a radioactive spider.

How It Stacks Up:  Mandolin Orange has five albums, but I only have two: this one and 2015’s “Such Jubilee”. Of the two, I put “Blindfaller” in at number one.

Ratings: 5 stars

After listening to Iron Horse play some average bluegrass on their Guns N’ Roses tribute album, I was hungry for some of the good stuff. The Dice Gods of the CD Odyssey decided to oblige me, when I rolled the beautiful “Blindfaller” by Mandolin Orange for my next review.

Mandolin Orange is a folk-bluegrass crossover duo consisting of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz. It is a terrible name for a band – don’t make your creative identity a bad pun, folks – but they more than make up for it with exceptional singing, songwriting and playing.

Bad name aside, you’d expect a band called Mandolin Orange to have pre-eminent talent on the mandolin, and Andrew Marlin does not disappoint. Even for an album that is heavily influenced by bluegrass, this record features the mandolin a lot, and not just keeping time. Marlin plays haunting trills, and poignant finger picking that go beyond providing accents to the songs and become the main event. His solo work on “Wildfire” will make your soul soar. If you don’t believe in souls, then go listen to Marlin play the mandolin and get back to me after.

Where Marlin leaves off, band mate Emily Frantz steps in, providing the same level of magic on the fiddle (or violin, it’s a bit of both in this case). Less prevalent than the mandolin, Frantz’s fiddle is no less welcome when it floats in to do a little soul-lifting of its own.

This record is a pleasant reminder that the basic melodic structures of folk music make playing with feeling and intensity that much more important. If it doesn’t speak to the heart, it doesn’t work. Fortunately “Blindfaller” meets that challenge and then some.

Marlin and Frantz share the singing duties, and his voice, high with just a trace of gravel (maybe just a trace of sand it is so light) is reminiscent of old seventies country crooners like George Jones. Her voice is more straight and pure folk music. They harmonize beautifully, but know well enough to not overuse it.

The word “Blindfaller” conjures up imagery of reckless loggers, not afraid to take down a tree without knowing exactly where it is going to fall, which is an apt image for the restless emotional energy that courses through the record. This is an album with a lot of looking back, a fair bit of regret and a bit of perspective shining through at the end.

From the opening act of “Hey Stranger” with its warning from age to youth to “not go making mistakes like mine” to the album’s final track, “Take this Heart of Gold” where our narrator has settled down and made the “right” choices, but can’t resist the siren’s call of the road:

“Out the door, down the drive, there’s part of me that tries
To keep that highway’s call to me away
And another, further, still, that sadly never will
Feel at home no matter how long I may stay.”

This is a record where there is no right choice. Instead, there is just a series of decisions that you hope will lead you to wisdom. I’m not sure the record ever gets there, but the music is so beautiful, you’re left feeling comfortable just being on the journey.

The album isn’t afraid of social or political commentary either. “Wildfire” tells the story of American Revolutionary War hero Joseph Warren, but takes the lesson down through the ages to a modern America still straining to attain the unity its early patriots dreamed of:

“I was born a southern son
In a small southern town where the rebels run wild
The beat their chests, and they swear ‘we’re gonna rise again’
And it should have been different, it could have been easy
The day that old Warren died, hate should’ve gone with him
But here we are caught in a wildfire.”

The album takes the jump and gospel hints of bluegrass and blends them seamlessly into old school seventies country and even a bit of modern indie. The combination creates something that feels incredibly old and incredibly new at the same time. I found myself spending half the time looking up the songs because I was sure they were old standards, and the other half marveling at how they’d refreshed one of America’s oldest musical forms in a way that was both respectful and daring.

Having only recently handed out a five star review, I was determined to find something wrong with “Blindfaller,” but there just aren’t a lot of weak spots to find on this record. Instead, song after song filled my soul with a rich tone and the feeling that amid all the false starts and rough trails we walk down, life has a beauty in everyday moments that we can’t let slip by unnoticed.

Best tracks: All tracks 

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