As the holidays approach I’ve discovered some solid new holiday releases, including a bluegrass holiday disc from the Claire Lynch Band. Also I cover a virtuosic, down-home fiddle-and-banjo traditional folk album from Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons and a strong recording from throat-singing songwriter The Suitcase Junket.
Clair Lynch Band, Holiday!
Late in every year comes an avalanche of holiday albums, but seldom a bluegrass holiday album. The Claire Lynch Band’s Holiday! is a welcome change. The group’s easygoing, ballad-heavy flavor of bluegrass lends itself nicely to this selection of sweetly rendered holiday-themed songs.
I never thought of it before, but could any instrument be a better choice to power “Jingle Bells” than the banjo? And why didn’t I think of arranging “We Three Kings” in 5/8 time? (Then again, we can’t all have a fiddle player like Bryan McDowell.) A gently swaying “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” turns into a syncopated rave-up providing another of the generally easygoing album’s high-energy moments.
The beautiful “Scarlet Ribbons” wasn’t written with the holidays in mind, but its miracle theme has become associated with the season, and its gorgeous melody works at any time of year. Lynch’s whispery vocals give it just the right sleepytime touch, as they do for the old lullaby “All Through the Night.” And including a somber rendition of the Chanukah song “In the Window,” a tune I hadn’t heard in decades, widens the scope of the album’s holiday feel (and takes me back to Hebrew school in the 1970s).
The Suitcase Junket, Make Time
The Suitcase Junket is Matt Lorenz, a one-man act who accompanies himself on distorted guitars and home-made percussion and has also mastered the eerie whistling harmonics of throat singing. He deploys his oddball, lo-fi but forceful sound in the service of well-conceived, engaging songs with literate and interesting lyrics.
Lorenz comes up with good couplets, and compelling longer images too. “I know our love is stronger than fear / And our fear of love is not welcome here.” That’s just plain good stuff. But also: “Sitting on the stairs she let him see underneath her painted, doll-faced portrait was a pain that would not let her be anything but broken.”
A mix of Black Keys holler, Liz Phair-style coarse intensity, and off-kilter blue-eyed soul, these dozen songs may not all be singalongs but they are consistently strong. Unusual presentation or not, The Suitcase Junket is much more than a curiosity or a novelty act, he’s a serious artist who shouts and winks at us at the same time, and has deep things to say to an open mind.
Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, Take Yo Time
Fiddle player and vocalist Ben Hunter teams with banjo player, guitarist and vocalist Joe Seamons on a well-chosen, varied set of folk songs that call up the traditions of country blues (“Broke Down Engine Blues,” “Long Tall Mama”), Appalachian music and folk songs tracing ancestry to the Child Ballads (“House Carpenter”) and early jazz (“Jazz Fiddler, Jungle Nights in Harlem”) and more (does anyone really know where the old jug band favorite “Goin’ to German” came from? I sure don’t). Taken as a whole, the sensibility (though not the sound) remind me a bit of John Hammond Jr.’s song choices.
Fine instrumentalists, the duo also captures the traditional vocal phrasing of old-time music, though in a crisp, youthful way, scratching a bit of a Robert Johnson-like quiver onto selections like “Banks of the River.” Meanwhile Hunter’s hearty sawing turns tracks like the old chestnut “Tom Dooley” into rough jewels.
If anything – and this is an issue I often have with modern trad-folk recordings – the super-clean quality of modern production detracts from the pleasant illusion of old-time atmosphere. But for truer authenticity, you can always put on some Lead Belly and groove to the lo-fi sound, or listen to Mississippi John Hurt’s out-of-tune guitar. For a breath of fresh traditional-folk air, Take Yo Time will suit just fine.