Quite simply, this is one of the best bluegrass-meets-folk albums you hear this year – if not in any given year.
Chances are, if you live outside of places like Boston and New York City, you probably don’t know the name Bridget Kearney. Chances are, if the world suddenly becomes a fair and just place, you soon will. The multitalented bassist/songwriter has garnered a great deal of acclaim – she won the John Lennon Songwriting contest in 2006 for her compositions “Sometimes When I’m Drunk” and “You’re Wearing My Favorite Shirt” – and is known as being a bit of a multi-tasker, as a member of bands such as Cuddle Magic, the Xylopholks (a group that plays 1920s-style ragtime music while dressed up in furry animal costumes) and a little Boston-based jazz-folk outfit called Lake Street Dive, whose third eponymous album released last year earned a rave review from myself, and her latest ongoing project, the bluegrass-rich Joy Kills Sorrow. It might be unseemly to highlight the accomplishments of the current Brooklynite, for a band is merely as great as the combined effort of all of its individual members. However, seeing that Kearney has either written or co-written all of the 11 songs on Joy Kills Sorrow’s latest release, This Unknown Science, a lot of the success rests squarely on her shoulders. Given the material presented on This Unknown Science -- music that is delightfully toe-tapping, shifting from the triumphant to the downtrodden -- and the aforementioned Lake Street Dive album, it seems apt to say that Kearney is a major talent who, despite being on the small folk label Signature Sounds, is ripe for discovery by the masses. Her songs swoon, brood, and have all of the rich majesty of someone who is clearly wise beyond her years.
As good as Kearney’s contributions are to This Unknown Science – with hardly a misfire among the bunch – she has wisely surrounded herself with some crackerjack talents who are virtuosos in their own right. She's joined by acoustic guitarist Matthew Arcara, who, according to the accompanying press release, has won several honours at various guitar competitions, including Winfield’s National Flatpicking Championship in 2006. Young singer Emma Beaton has similarly picked up accolades by winning “Young Performer of the Year” as an 18-year-old at the Canadian Folk Music Awards in 2008 and was nominated for “Traditional Vocalist of the Year” at the same ceremony last year. Rounding out the bill are banjo player Wesley Corbett and mandolin player Jacob Jolliff. The latter seemingly hasn’t taken home the sort of hardware that his peers in the band have, but that might change if This Unknown Science is any indication. Jolliff is a cascading mountain of a picker, running through runs of sixteenth notes flawlessly and with great aplomb. A great deal of the accomplishment of the album can be attributed to his up-front, endearing flashiness, which accentuates the generally feel-good and uplifting nature of a majority of the songs to be found here.
The style of bluegrass presented on This Unknown Science is a lot like what you’d get if the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? was performed on crack cocaine. Yet there are moments of fragile beauty that you’ll want to place beside your pillow and cuddle up with. Clearly flavoured by and inspired by the folk music of rural Appalachia, This Unknown Science is spun in a cocoon of new folk influences. At times, you can hear a hint of Bon Iver, if Justin Vernon performed with a sense of spirit and vigour. Chamber music influences filter through the mix as well, with some well-placed and organic cello adding texture to many of these songs of affirmation and tribulation. Some songs are lush and supple – the quiet “When I Grow Up”, the haunting “Jason” – and some you want to quite simply kick off your clogs and dance to, like “New Man”, which has the band singing out a series of “whoo-hoo’s” during the chorus with such infection that it carries you along as the song gradually gains momentum like a steam train being shovelled hastily with coal.
While there is a clutch of momentous songs that, ideally, will be sung around campfires, if not folk festivals, nothing takes the cake quite like the album’s final track, “Such Sweet Alarms”. Time literally slows in its tracks as Beaton cries out such painfully plaintive lines as, “How does a bridesmaid meet her groom? / God, can you send me someone soon?” The song, as a whole, which shows the band restraining its fingerpicking, aside from some nice figures on the mandolin during the solo, will have you reaching for the thesaurus to find new synonyms for words or phrases like “lovely”, “gorgeous” and “heart melting”. For a song that cries out for love in all its yearning and loneliness, it’s hard to imagine the female talents of this band going long without prospective suitors just on the sheer stew of heartfelt emotions that the song brings forward in the listener. This is the song I’d want played at my wedding, despite the spirit of longing that permeates the track. (If R.E.M.’s misogyny-tinged “The One I Love” can be a wedding song, let me entertain my fantasy.)
Speaking on the subject of hearts a fluttering with unbridled passion, let me count the ways in which I absolutely love and adore this album, and “Such Sweet Alarms” in particular. This Unknown Science hasn’t really left my CD player since it arrived in the mail. It’s just such a well-orchestrated album from the very first notes, and you can tell that the members of Joy Kills Sorrow are classically trained with an ear towards melding varied and distinct colours and textures to their music. There are new things that impact the listener each and every time you hit repeat on this solid and storied collection of songs: the background vocals deep in the mix of “Jason”, the banjo that sounds like a piano on “The Ice Is Starting to Melt”, the hand slapped guitar on “Eli” that you have to strain to hear. Listening to This Unknown Science is a journey through homespun genre and a myriad of sonic delights. The world deserves to hear music that is so joyous and delightful as this. Hearing not just one, but two albums that are so nearly pitch-perfect (this album and Lake Street Dive), I want to go out, empty my pockets of whatever loose change might reside there, and buy up everything in the expansive catalogue of music penned by Kearney. I don’t know how she does what she does, but everything that I’ve heard by this promising young songwriter simply turns to gold, and needs to be heard by the hoi polloi in the cruel harsh world at large. This Unknown Science effortlessly and effusively marks the trajectory of an artist who knows her way around the word “craft” – which is such a rarity in this crazy, unfair, mixed-up Lady Gaga world. Chances are, if you love good music, regardless of genre, you’ll find this all out for yourself, too.