Oakland’s Evie Ladin plays a kind of neo-bluegrass that uses traditional instrumentation—banjo, fiddle, upright bass, acoustic guitar—while eschewing many of the old-timey, just-country-folks tropes of conventional bluegrass. Ladin’s voice is muscular and smooth, and capable of expressing a wide array of emotions, and she is capably supported by a set of competent musicians that includes Dina MacCabee on violin, Keith Terry on bass and Erik Pearson on guitar and banjo. This album marks the recording debut of this particular group of musicians, but they sound as smooth and cohesive as if they’ve been playing together for years.
Album opener “Got You on My Mind” smolders with gnarly intensity and is an album highlight. It’s also the perfect introduction to Ladin’s voice: sultry, wistful and defiant all at once. The band joins in one member at a time, and nobody hogs the spotlight.
The good news is, it’s a great song; the bad news is that much of the rest of the album has trouble measuring up. “Down to the Door / Lost Girl” is a straight-up bluegrass jam that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Rounder Records compilation. It’s a very good tune, well arranged and played, but it lacks something of the offbeat verve of the opener. Follow-up song “He’s Not Alone” slows the tempo, loses the energy and replaces it with trite lyrics.
Not until “Below”, the fifth song on the album, does the band begin to reclaim some of their wonky-tonk territory. “Below” benfits from a stuttering, irregular rhythm and opaque lyrics which manage to suggest much while actually saying very little (a good trick if you can manage it). MacCabee’s fiddle playing is particularly evocative on this track, and the band as a whole coheres wonderfully.
And so it goes. The band veers between the fairly straightforward country/folk of “Sleepy Eyed Joe” and The Carter Family’s “Shadow of the Pines” and other, more innovative takes on the genre like “Dime Store Glasses”, “Coffeeshop” and “Sugarbabe”. The latter song, especially, is remarkable for its use of a jittery, percussive underbelly and lyrics that sound straight out of a 17th-century dirge.
This isn’t to say that the more “conventional” takes on traditional music are poorly played. They’re not, and some, like the fiddle-centric instrumental “Build Me a House / Cypress Shuffle” are very lively indeed. (Once again, MacCabee proves her worth as Ladin’s secret wepon.) It seems likely that, in a concert environment, such tunes would provide an interesting variety to the program. On record, though, they’re the tracks that the listener just wants to get through.
This is a reltively minor quibble, and the case could certainly made that traditional music needs to keep one eye on the past even as it dives into the future. In any case, fans of acoustic and/or traditional music who are looking for something new will find much to like on this record. Ladin possesses a good voice, a keen songwriting sense and a stable of strong musicians to back her up.