The dangers of playing too well
In certain musical genres, like bluegrass and old-time country, fans denigrate certain groups for sounding too professional. The devotees consider slickness a sign of inauthenticity. That can be a problem for those pickers who master their instruments with felicity and finesse. They just play too darn well.
There is a kernel of truth in the criticism, as sometimes music that is performed too well can reek of sterility. That’s a danger faced by flat-picking acoustic guitarist Matt Arcara, banjo player Wesley Corbett, and mandolinist Jacob Joliff, the instrumental heart of Joy Kills Sorrow. They always play clear and crisp. That’s largely a good thing, but gets to be boring song after song. You wish they’d hit a wrong note or break a string.
“Darkness Sure Becomes This City” is not an instrumental album, though. Emma Beaton’s vocals share the spotlight with the band. Beaton does her best to sing on an even keel and never overshadow the strings. Again, this is commendable in theory and does yield to some nice interplay, especially on the song from which the title comes, “All The Buildings”. However, it would be nice to hear a wider ranger of emotions from the lead vocalist. While the lyrics of the almost dozen tunes vary in tone and feeling, Beaton’s voice only varies in subtle ways. Happy or sad, she seems to keep most of her feelings inside.
Part of this is due to the material itself. Almost half of the songs were written by bassist/harmony vocalist Bridget Kearney, and they are the best ones on the album. They are literate, if a bit earnest, and at their best reveal a reflective mind. However, her narrators are afraid to take risks. They curse buildings that block the light and call themselves sinners because they don’t do enough, they don’t love others deeply for fear of being hurt, and their idea of going wild is riding bicycles in the dark. There is only so much Beaton can do as a singer with such self-contained characters. There is only so much the pickers can do when expressing the joy and angst of such temperate personalities. The narrators of the other songs aren’t much different in this respect, as they express the excitement of waiting for a letter or the anticipation of life after death, and such. Ho-hum.
There’s something befittingly wholesome about an acoustic band with female singers who say they get drunk on love and don’t need liquor, who talk about beauty and mystery, and find the problems with city life is that the buildings block the sun and the subways don’t run on time. If you are looking for good clean pickin’ and good clean fun, Joy Kills Sorrow is your cup of tea. As for me, I prefer a different beverage. One that can make you cry or laugh, make you think you’re smart when you’re being stupid, and make you do things you regret. Of course, I am speaking metaphorically here. You don’t need alcohol to have a good time, but you need something to kick your ass if you want to make truly memorable music.