Three-fifths of the Decemberists ditch Colin Meloy's narratives (and nerd-bugle vocals) to craft an authentic and meticulously played progressive bluegrass record.
Any buzz generated by the release of Black Prairie's debut release, Feast of the Hunters' Moon, owes much to the fact that three of Black Prairie's five members are on loan from their day jobs in the Decemberists. What should make it a hot item isn't that the record is a larky side project, however, but that it is a unique, meticulous set of Americana, regardless of its personnel.
It is tempting to try to pin Black Prairie down genre-wise, but you only end up inventing ridiculous subspecies. Feast of the Hunters' Moon might be the best gypsy-klezmer-newgrass album of 2010. What's clear is how much bottled-up progressive bluegrass alacrity this gang had in them. Not that the musicianship in the Decemberists was ever in doubt. Anyone who has caught them live is aware of the instrumental diversity and proficiency in the band, but on this Black Prairie debut, these players have doubled their efforts to emerge as genuine neo-bluegrass players in the modes (and caliber) of Crooked Still and the Greencards.
The Decemberists are, of course, Colin Meloy's band. He's written every Decemberists song, and, as brilliant as his narratives of gypsys and forest queens and seafarers and ornithological wives often are, without him, the musicians in Black Prairie sound postively inspired in fleshing out their string-band chops. And while each Decemberists record is replete with acoustic guitars, organs, theremins, accordions, etc., nothing to this point would have prepared listeners for the authentic and well-played bluegrass on Feast of the Hunters' Moon.
The three Decemberists here are guitarist Chris Funk, bassist Nate Query, and accordionist Jenny Conlee, and the new ensemble is rounded out by fellow Portland musicians Annalisa Tornfelt (violin) and Jon Neufeld (guitar). Funk, itching to play more dobro than his work with the Decemberists called for, began collaborating with Query for a string-band idea, finally bringing in the others, all who equally shared songwriting and arrangement duties on the 13 songs that became Feast.
While the record moves through several strains of roots music -- traditional Jewish songs, newgrass, tangos, fiddle tunes, Italian folk -- the default position of the music is one that facilitates profound chilling out. The lead-off track, “Across the Black Prairie”, establishes this kind of dreamy, erudite chamber-grass, showcasing an elegant dance of weaving violin, dobro, and accordion, the instruments varyingly retreating and reasserting themselves, until the whole thing slows to a weary collapse.
Four of the album's songs feature lead vocals by Tornfelt, who offers some of the most somnambulistic singing since Mazzy Star, but it works quite well within the dark shuffle of the rest of the record. The loveliest of the Tornfelt-sung numbers is “Single Mistake”, which contains a melody and delivery venturing into Norah Jones territory, and the record ends with “Blackest Crow”, a haunting ballad featuring Tornfelt's vapory, inscrutable vocal embroidery.
Everywhere else, though, it's an instrumentalist's showcase. Tornfelt shines in this regard, as well, her violin working hard throughout in the absence of a mandolin. It's a well-oiled ensemble, and although they include a hot-stepping traditional bluegrass tune (“Home Made Lemonade”), just to prove they can, Black Prarie aren't about playing the most dazzling, breakneck runs. Instead, they keep things spare and eerie, with a ghostly ambiance and a gauzy serenity -- no speedy tempos, the accordion never too far away. So far, Black Prairie haven't ventured much outside the Pacific Northwest, but the summer festivals would do well to get them lined up. They are the perfect band for a blissed-out morning after.