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These days the 'Brits' hardly hit my radar. It was only because I'd heard that Laura Marling had won the 2010 award for best female artist that my interest was pricked. A bunch of blokes with beards and woolly jumpers (Mumford and Sons) and a pretty folkstress come away with gongs and we're all now folkies. Will it encourage mainstream music fans to explore what's going on in the folk and roots scene? I'd say it's unlikely: there are some wonderful bands and artists out there who unlikely to go truly mainstream but who are working hard to keep the traditional folk songs alive in a way that's really relevant today.
One such band is Crooked Still. Hailing from Boston, Mass. and an integral part of the area's thriving alt folk/roots scene, this exciting band perform almost only traditional songs but using an unusual collection of instruments for the genre and the band manages to stay fairly true to the original styles, yet still injects the music with a very distinctive sound. If you enjoy excellent musicianship and characterful songs, Crooked Still is a band you should listen to.
The band's sound is fairly remarkable - certainly on this album, 'Shaken by a Low Sound' -in that it evokes a strong bluegrass sound without using the usual instruments for that style. There's no mandolin and hardly any fiddle. Instead, the dominant sound is the wonderful banjo of (Dr.) Gregory Liszt, a man who blows me away with his talent every time I listen to the band (in live performances he comes across even better - and it's little wonder that Bruce Springsteen had Lizst play on the Seeger Sessions tour)) Crooked Still's inspired version of the early Dylan number 'Oxford Town' which they blend beautifully with the traditional fiddle tune 'Cumberland Gap' is a brilliant example of Crooked Still at their energetic best and highlights Liszt's compelling virtuosity. In contrast the song that follows 'New Railroad' sees Liszt employ a completely different style while retaining the same distinctive style; this time it's a picking style which works brilliantly alongside Rushad Eggleston's cello. It's this wonderful combination of cello and banjo that is at the heart of what Crooked Still do. Where Lizst picks up the pace on the up tempo numbers, Eggleston's uses the cello to give a deliciously sombre sound on the quieter tracks and when Eggelston teams up with Corey DiMario's atmospheric upright bass the sound is heightened.
'Little Sadie' is one of those well known folk songs that Crooked Still manage to breath new life into without straying too far from its original sound. Doc Watson made the song popular in the 1960s but it was a guitar heavy song and Crooked Still's version has no guitar. Liszt's banjo makes the song verge towards up tempo yet Aoife O'Donovan's lovely vocals imbue a dark element. This song is a great example of how good Crooked Still are at presenting the traditional 'story' songs so common in the folk tradition; the oldest songs were written at a time when there were no televisions or radios so songs were an important form of entertainment. 'Little Sadie' is a song about a man arrested after shooting his wife, who is sent before the judge. (Artists who have recorded this song include Johnny Cash - appropriately on the Folsom Prison album, Mark Lanegan, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan)
The Robert Johnson classic 'Come on in my Kitchen' is the stand out track of the album. Aoife's voice, a little reminiscent of Alison Krauss, is at its best here and the band's take on the song is gritty and seductive; considering the sound of Aiofe's voice on the other tracks where it is clear and sweet, I was surprised how she pulls this number off. First recorded in the 1930s, Crooked Still has retained the haunting feel of the song but brought it up to date with their interpretation and changing the gender for the purpose of the lyrics gives a new sentiment to the theme; in the song Aoife sings about a lover who left her for someone but she'll take him back if things don't work out. Crooked Still's interpretation fits the story perfectly. Another story telling song is the excellent 'murder ballad' 'Wind and Rain'; it's the story of a young woman drowned by her jealous sister. This is a song that demands you really listen to the lyrics, it's a wonderfully dark tale. When the dead girl's body floats away, it is found by a fiddler who plucks thirty strands of the dead girl's golden hair and makes an instrument from it; the only sound that this fiddle can make is the sound of the 'wind and rain'. (Incidentally, I played the album to a Slovenian friend who told me that there's a Slovene take on this song called something like 'A Fiddle Made from a Human Body Reveals a Murder')
There are no weak numbers on this album; the songs have been well chosen and the musicians' talent enables the band to create really clever arrangements in spite of using different instruments from what you might expect. Crooked Still has assembled eleven songs that were already brilliant and applied their own distinctive and exciting sound producing an album that is full of surprises yet remains true to the folk genre. It's clever stuff.
Thanks to frequent plays courtesy of Radio 2s Bob Harris and BBC Radio Scotland's Ricky Ross Crooked Still are building a decent profile for themselves on the alt music scene and an appearance at Glasgow's 'Celtic Connections' festival in January 2011 received much critical acclaim.
If you enjoyed Springsteen's album of folk standards, or the material that Robert Plant has recorded in recent years, you should give Crooked Still a listen. Dylan fans should love it and fans of traditional folk and bluegrass should give it a try.
Mumford and Sons? Pah!
Some of the tracks can be previewed here:
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Can't You Hear Me Callin'
2 Little Sadie
3 New Railroad
4 Oxford Town Cumberland Gap
5 Lone Pilgrim
6 Come On In My Kitchen
7 Ain't No Grave
9 Mountain Jumper
10 Railroad Bill
11 Wind And Rain