The busy local acoustic scene produces four new albums
Integration of the Awkward
MaMuse’s new effort is the duo’s most sophisticated studio work yet, cementing the singers’ ethereal acoustic folk niche that has captivated Chico and beyond. Anchored by the songwriting, instrumentation and soaring vocals of sisters-in-song Karisha Longaker and Sarah Nutting, Awkward’s 10 new offerings are buoyant and uplifting charmers, each with its own special distinction. “Goodness Is,” the second track, exemplifies the album’s collective optimism: “And we’ll plant a garden and we’ll plant our feet/ and we’ll grow the love between us.” The women’s delicate voices continue to express the humility, sensitivity and kindness that have enabled the Chico-based group’s initial local splash to ripple toward ever-wider audiences. Mike Wofchuck’s bongos and other soft percussive contributions have found permanent footing in the band these days, adding an important organic tribalism to the mix. And, the amazing cover art by Mara Friedman of New Moon Visions Sacred Art adds another lovely dimension. Other tunes include the comforting lullaby-like “Constellation,” the Joni Mitchell-reminiscent “Hard to Handle,” and the whimsical “Love Poem,” which offers a comforting view of mortality: “When I die I ain’t gonna die afraid/ all my life’s a little love poem to my grave/ A little love poem to the ground where I’m from and where I’m bound to go.”
At Fiddlers Green
I like this album a lot, and it’s not just because I’ve been friends with its auteur, Mark McKinnon, since we both had hair down to our butts. I’ve listened to it so often already that I can’t get some of its tunes out of my head, which is a real credit to Mark, who wrote all the songs but one, and to his band, which plays and sings them with affection and skill. Good music begins with good songs, and Mark has an Irish poet’s feel for lyrics and story telling and a California musician’s ability to wrap them in sweet melodies. It doesn’t hurt that Ha’penny Bridge is composed of some fine players and singers, including the lovely Molly McNally Paul joining Mark on lead vocals, Vita Segalla on fiddle, Jewel Cardinet on mandolin, Tom Haber on bass, Bo Bowen on flute and whistles, Curtis Paul on drums and Zach Cowan on congas. Some of the songs, like the title tune, are rollicking, and others, like the gorgeous “Holy Ground,” are elegiac. There are love songs (“I Went Out Walking”) and political love songs (“The Running Man”) and even a cowboy Celtic song (“The Blue Winds of Summer”). Give these tunes a couple of listens, and you’ll be humming them in your dreams, guaranteed.
Make a Home
Envelope Peasant & the Scientific Orchestra
No matter how easy the humming once you’ve heard a melody, it is a very difficult thing to invent a memorable one. So, it is pretty astonishing that Envelope Peasant, aka Chico singer/songwriter/guitarist Sean Harrasser, has fashioned at least one pleasing earworm for each of the 11 songs on this acoustic project with his Scientific Orchestra (Melissa “Texas” Patterson on cello, violin and vocals; Andy Oldon, piano; Spencer Holmes, stand-up bass). After each listening, I had a different refrain taking over my brain for the day: I would find myself hollering out “You wanna stop your eyes/ You wanna stop your brain/ You wanna stop the single note that makes you stray” (“A Single Note”); swinging a beer stein along with, “And I wish, yes I wish this could all stay the same/ But then you like the sunlight and I like the rain.” (“Sunlight, Rain”), and crying into that beer to “It feels like a splinter/ and oh god it hurts/ and I’ll write you this letter/ for all that it’s worth” (“Feels Like a Splinter”). When it comes to Harrasser’s vocal approach, mileage may vary. He does sing pretty in plenty of spots, but he’s just as often caterwauling like a madman and shoving a lot of words into each line. But, for those who’ve warmed up to him (like this writer), that’s when he’s actually at his emotional best. A very engaging collection of diverse and well-played songs of love, loss, nature and wanderlust.
Lament to Death
With Lament to Death Chico’s sweet-voiced Railflowers deliver an authentic alt-country/folk/bluegrass mélange that could have come straight out of the backwoods or the bayou. Quiet and intimate, the new disc gives fans 10 new, melodious sing-alongs that journey into musical domains occupied by such notables as Roseanne Cash and Gillian Welch. The opening number, “Homestead,” is delivered with an old-timey gospel groove, with the calming message, “We’re going home to the country/ never had a mind for these city ways,” while the next track, “Burning,” prompts the listener to sing out loud the lyric, “Burning, I’m on fire,” long after the disc is over. “Silent Voice” offers perfect three-part harmonies made stronger by the Knight siblings’ seeming telepathic power, and the traditional “Never Grow Old” closes out the collection in stirring fashion. Led by the sisters Beth (mandolin), Hannah (banjo) and Ellen Knight (guitar), vocalists all, with Emma Blankenship on the stand-up bass, Lament also includes generous helpings of Deren Ney (Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers) on guitar and a dash of Aaron Redner (Hot Buttered Rum) on fiddle. The whole disc was produced by Hot Buttered Rum’s Nat Keefe. While The Railflowers’ have mastered the harmonious, gentle end of the Americana sound spectrum, next time out it would be great to hear the band kick-up their heels with a few dust-shaking, up-tempo numbers as well.