Selected Reviews: 1997–2017

 Matt Munisteri and Brock Mumford, Love Story Though he and his cohorts hail from New York City, Matt Munisteri’s music could perhaps best be described as “midwestern swing.” There’s a pastoral quality to Munisteri’s Cole Porter–influenced songs, delivered in a warm, “regular guy” voice, and the band’s front line of lightly amplified acoustic guitar, trumpet, and accordion, make it the perfect replacement combo should the Prairie Home Companion house band every have a run-in with a dodgy batch of tuna casserole. Munisteri’s wit is prodigious (he seems to have memorized a rhyming dictionary) and his antecedents can be gleaned from a look at the songs he covers on Love Story. Choice selections from Willard Robinson, Hoagy Carmichael, Bob Dylan, and Van Dyke Parks sit comfortably among Munisteri’s own. He’s also a talented guitarist, alternating deft fingerpicking accompaniment, which often doubles his vocal melody, with pungent, jazzy single-note lines, and his midrangey, lo-fi tone is more reminiscent of blues guitarists than any of the standard jazz models.

Nathan, Jimson Weed From the fertile northern prairie of Winnipeg, Ontario, the band Nathan creates a kind of fractured acoustic North-Midwestern rootsy swing sound around the vocals of primary songwriter Keri McTighe and Shelley Marshall, whose entwined voices fall somewhere between Iris Dement’s Iowa twang and Nanci Griffith’s Texas sopranino, with close, rubbing harmonies that recall those favored by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. McTighe’s poetry rarely rhymes, and barely scans on the page, but its brilliant wit (“I’m going down the highway with a suitcase full of all my bad ideas / Going to check them out / See what I have been missing all these years”) and striking imagery (“And as sure as a sharp corner comes a jack-knife kind of creepiness / Sweeps up and over me”) seem perfectly mated to the ragged-but-right acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, pedal steel, theremin, accordion, trumpet, and other instruments that come and go like mysterious boarders passing through the comfy parlor of Devin Latimer and Dean Roy’s bass and drums. This is one weed that should be left to grow wherever it can.

Mae Moore, It’s a Funny World The lush strings and rippling piano on the opening title track of this Canadian singer-songwriter’s sixth recording recall the sophisticated ’80s pop insouciance of Joe Jackson or Swing out Sister. But the sound of Moore’s Funny World soon opens up to feature her own strummed acoustic guitar in alternate tunings and jazz guitarist Marc Atkinson’s inventive Django-meets-Steely Dan solos, played on a Selmer-style acoustic. Lyrically, Moore primarily treads familiar romantic pop territory. Exceptions include an eco-lament for the vanishing “Red Clay Hills” of Canada’s Prince Edward Island and the imaginary artistic utopia depicted in “Bohemia.” But no matter what she’s singing, Moore’s voice is a wonder, a round-toned burnished instrument, like Stan Getz’ tenor sax or Clifford Brown’s trumpet, that has been too-long hidden north of the border.

 Kate Rusby, Underneath the Stars English folk songstress Kate Rusby may never make an album better than her 1996 debut, Hourglass. Then again, she may never make an album worse than Hourglass. Each of her subsequent albums have included the things that made that album so fresh and exciting when it was released: new takes on traditional English and Celtic songs arranged with minimal yet inventive accompaniment sung by what has been lauded as one of the 20th century’s greatest folk voices. Underneath the Stars, Rusby’s fifth solo album features the same all-star cast: producer John McCusker on fiddle, cittern, whistles, banjo, and ukulele, Rusby and Ian Carr on guitars, Andy Cutting on accordion, and Michael McGoldrick on flute and whistle, as well as a few unusual guests, like Vasens’ Olov Johansson on nyckelharpa on the lovely “Bring Me a Boat” and a brass quintet on two songs. But to complain that Rusby is not progressing or experimenting is to miss the point, like complaining that a great French chef doesn’t try his hand at barbecue or dim sum. If anything, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the traditional songs from Rusby’s own songs, with the exception of the dreamy, ambiguous lyric of the delightful title track that ends the CD: “Underneath the stars you met me / Underneath the stars you left me / I wonder if the stars regret me / I’m sure they’d like me if they only met me / They come and go of their own free will/ Go gently.”

Claire Holley Claire Holley is an observer, a romantic reporter from the backyards and front porches of the heartland, out “looking for signs” and stealing snapshots of people who sing “the sweetest out of tune you’ll ever hear.” This Mississippi native’s brilliant country-folk CD takes the listener on a trip past “Heyward Avenue” where “most people are sleeping or drinking something warm in their homes” to “Abilene” where there “ain’t nothing but the cattle on the plains.” She drives past a “Pennsylvania Town” to a place where “some of the rivers overflow and flood the land and some are dried up like thirsty old men” and on to “Mississippi” where she stops to fingerpick a music-box–like instrumental. Holley frames her observations in bright, major-key chord progressions (spiced with a few choice modulations) and peripatetic bass lines. She’s accompanied by a sympathetic band of bass, drums, and electric guitar, but her sparkling acoustic guitar is always front and center, a plangent partner to her voice’s sweet twang. An evocative, literate, and luminous recording.

Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project The dean of American folk field recorders, Alan Lomax, was born just over 100 years ago, on January 31, 1915. As folklorist, ethnomusicologist, writer, scholar, oral historian, and filmmaker, Lomax helped introduce a world of “music with the bark on” to music lovers outside the traditions he and his father John Lomax documented. He could have no better centenary tribute to his life and work than this sumptuous recording by Canadian banjo player Jayme Stone and his stellar band of interpreters.

Stone is known more as a “progressive” bluegrass banjo player, peer to Béla Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Jens Kruger, and others who imagine no musical boundaries for the five-string stringed instrument. On previous recordings he’s explored music from around the world, including West Africa, Sweden, Bulgaria, Brazil, and others, and his last recording, 2013’s The Other Side of the Air includes a Concerto for Banjo and Chamber Symphony. To create the Lomax Project, which also includes a series of concerts with some of the key players, Stone gathered musicians deeply rooted in traditional American music, including legends Tim O’Brien and Bruce Molsky, whose credentials as folk interpreters are unparalleled, as well as relative newcomers Brittany Haas, Margaret Glaspy, Eli West, Greg Garrison, and Moira Smiley, whose music is most often heard among the progressive end of the trad roots spectrum.

Although Stone’s banjo is a key component of nearly every track (except the “a capella with body percussion” tracks), this is not a banjo record, but a group project mostly centered around the singers and the songs. The material spans a wide range of that collected by Lomax, from Georgia Sea Island gospel to old-time fiddle tunes to Trinidadian calypso to Scottish folk ballads, and more. The material is all traditional but the arrangements are not. Stone and company, perhaps inspired by the dictum of Estil Ball, quoted by Stephen Wade in his liner notes, “We just picked it up here and yonder. We just played every which way,” bring their vast experience to the music, and are inspired but not constrained by tradition. The arrangements here may be “played every which way” but they enfold naturally from the singer’s interpretations rather than being imposed from outside intellectually. Some of these songs have chord progressions and virtuosic instrumental treatments their sources couldn’t have dreamed of, but the arrangements never sound forced or inauthentic, and the music is delivered with a loving vigor and passion.

While most of the musicians here are well known to roots music fans, and many of them give inspired performances (Tim O’Brien positively rocks “Before This Time Another Year” and Bruce Molsky and Brittany Haas’s fiddling on “Old Christmas” and “Julie and Joe” should inspire a whole new generation of old-time fiddlers), the revelation here for many will be Margaret Glaspy, whose gorgeous, passionate, nuanced singing on “Lazy John,” “Goodbye Old Paint,” “Shenandoah,” “I Want to Hear Somebody Pray,” “What Is the Soul of Man,” “Maids When You’re Young,” and “Lambs on the Green Hills” makes these songs sound as if they sprang directly from her subconscious.

It’s hard to pick a standout among all these songs, but the arrangement of “Shenandoah,” probably the best-known song here, illustrates the depth, power, and complexity of the whole record. Starting with Glaspy haltingly delivering the forlorn lyric above an embellished set of chords simply accompanied by wispy strings (Haas and bass player Joe Phillips), before gaining momentum with a progressive bluegrass groove featuring Stone’s Fleck-like banjo, a heartbreakingly soaring fiddle solo by Haas, and a blistering guitar solo by ringer Julian Lage, the arrangement manages to embody the conflicting sense of tentative hope and bleak despair that Glaspy brings to the lyric “I’m bound away.”

Most of the songs here, besides “Shenandoah,” are not well known, and only a few (“Susan Anna Gal,” “Wake Up John,” “Goodbye Old Paint”) are heard very often in the traditional scene. The goal with some collaborative tributes like this is to introduce a rich musical tradition to a new audience, and while Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project will undoubtedly do that, it is in itself one of the most compelling and rich roots music recordings of recent years.

David Lindley and Wally Ingram, Twango Bango III Perhaps we should be glad that David Lindley is not on a major label. For what corporate entity would let one of their artists record a song called “When a Guy Gets Boobs” or a Hawaiian/reggae version of “I Am a Pilgrim”? Twango Bango III, Lindley’s sixth self-released album, features the polyester-clad wild man of the strings in all his multifaceted glory, alternating between the “lively it up” reggae and searing slide guitar of his El Rayo-X days and the old-timey oud-and-dumbek duo sound he’s pursued first with Hani Naser and now with Wally Ingram since 1990. Lindley’s wacky sense of humor shows up on his own “Meatgrinder Blues,” “Boobs,” and the calypso “Shame and Scandal in the Family.” And North African takes on the Cajun two-step “Gabrielle” and the Appalachian standard “Little Sadie” may seem like ideas destined for the world-music novelty bins, but in Lindley and Ingram’s hands they make perfect sense.

Oscar Alemán, Swing Guitar Masterpieces Brazilian swing guitarist Alemán may have lived in the shadow of his more flamboyant friend and rival Django Reinhardt, but many considered him Reinhardt’s superior. The 52 tracks on this wonderful two-CD compilation are convincing evidence for that opinion. Alemán’s solo fingerstyle pieces, such as “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” are some of the finest examples of early solo jazz guitar, while tunes like “Negra de Cabello Duro” find him exploring his Brazilian heritage. Swingsters unfamiliar with Alemán have a treat in store.

Steve Earle, El Corazon Earle travels the stylistic map on El Corazon, proving the connections between quiet folk fingerpicking (“Christmas in Washington”), garage grunge (“Here I Am”), traditional bluegrass (“I Still Carry You Around”), and hook-laden roots rock (“If You Fall”). Earle’s luckless characters and trenchant tales of broken promises and faded dreams are the glue that holds this vibrant disc together. His guests are top-notch—the Del McCoury Band, Emmylou Harris, the Fairfield Four—and his genre-jumping recalls Clarence White–era Byrds. If only the Byrds had a songwriter with Earle’s gift for melody and characters.

Peter Case, Full Service No Waiting This, the seventh installment of Peter Case’s infectious brand of hobo-pop, is the best since his eponymous debut 12 years ago. The spare production, featuring Case’s acoustic guitar and Greg Leisz’ Dobro and lap steel, perfectly frames Case’s Lennon-esque vocals and hard-edged romantic tales. Leisz is in particularly fine form here. His repetitive Dobro line on “Until the Next Time” combined with Case’s self-defining bridge (“Just another outcast / Underneath the overcast / Waitin’ on a sunny day / Tryin’ to find the words to say”) helps turn the song into a small folk-rock masterpiece.

Michael Barnett, One Song Romance The first solo release on Compass Records by Michael Barnett, who has played fiddle with the David Grisman Quintet, Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys, Tony Trischka, and the Deadly Gentlemen, among others, reflects the eclectic virtuosity and open-minded approach to roots string band music that is a hallmark of the fiddle camps he frequented as a teenage fiddle phenom. Mark O’Connor’s String Conference, Christian Howes Creative String Camp, and the Mt. Shasta Music Camp expose young musicians to a variety of styles, and Barnett’s music reflects this. In an era when you can sample most any kind of music you want via Spotify, YouTube, or iTunes, such a Catholic taste is natural. This new generation of string wizards is limited only by their imaginations, and Barnett’s album is a great example/sampler of the kind of voracious virtuosity that can be heard in players like Tristan Clarridge, Sarah Jarosz, and Brittany Haas.

While the songs on One Song Romance (all of which were written by Barnett) jump from style to style willy nilly, the album is not a pastiche. Nickel Creek, Tim O’Brien, Punch Brothers, Jarosz, and Crooked Still, may be the most obvious antecedents, but there is a long tradition of such variety. If you’ve ever heard a Doc Watson concert or recording, you know what I mean. Watson had no problem navigating traditional songs, pop standards, fiddle tunes, blues, and a variety of instrumental approaches and usually mixed them liberally in a set. As do Barnett and his recording crew, which includes members of most of the bands mentioned: Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still), O’Brien, three fifths of Punch Brothers, the Deadly Gentlemen, etc.

The album leads off with “It’ll Be Alright,” sung by the fiddler and O’Donovan, with complex instrumental textures reminiscent of Punch Brothers or the Bee Eaters and a stunning solo by Barnett. The new old-timey song “Change Her Mind” is sung by O’Brien and O’Donovan and supported by a potent Punch Brothers rhythm section of Paul Kowert (bass), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Noam Pikelny (banjo), with Barnett’s fiddle launching into an infectious old-time rideout. The instrumental “Hopped the Train” begins with a fiddle part that echoes the previous two songs, with a couple of wide harmonic detours, giving Pikelny, Eldridge, and mandolinist Dominick Leslie a chance to stretch out. At one point, Barnett’s solo sounds like Stuart Duncan stealing Billy Contreras licks. “It Wasn’t Meant to Be That Way” slows things down with a jazzy waltz that might sound like a Nickel Creek ripoff if Nickel Creek’s influence hadn’t become so pervasive among Barnett’s generation as to become yet another style ripe for cultivating in itself. “Dig Dig Dig” is reminiscent of Barnett’s tenure with the Deadly Gentlemen. It’s a “novelty” number sung by mad cellist Rushad Eggleston and featuring humor-laden, swingin’ solos from guitarist David Grier and mandolinist Leslie. “Bottom of the Barrel” continues the smokin’ schizophrenic swing with a Billy Contreras-style head, a viciously inventive solo from Grier, and some newgrassy mandolin licks from Leslie, before Barnett takes it out with a solo that sounds like Johnny Gimble on acid. “New Barnes,” ostensibly a bluegrass instrumental, is a twisty old-time fiddle tune of the kind Brittany Haas is known for and features bass and octave mandolin solos.

Barnett saves the title tune of his delightful debut for last. A sweet, melancholy waltz featuring O’Donovan’s lead vocal, “One Song Romance” may describe a flirtation that lasts for just one dance, but that’s unlikely to be the extent of the relationship that listeners will have with Barnett’s multifarious recording. Although you may take a shine to one song or tune for awhile, the variety will undoubtedly please even the most capricious open-eared fans of acoustic music.

John McCusker, Yella Hoose Scottish fiddler John McCusker has one of the sweetest tones in the entire violin world, and he writes tunes to match—mournful airs (“Carrickmacross”), slashing jigs and reels (“The Boys of the Puddle” and “Pur the Orangutan”), wistful waltzes (“The Guid Man”), and tuneful marches (“Wee Michael’s March”). McCusker, whose regular gig is with the Battlefield Band, also plays cittern, piano, and whistle, and produced and arranged the whole glorious feast. He also has great taste in guitarists and singers—the ever-inventive guitarist Ian Carr graces most cuts and English folk chanteuse Kate Rusby drops by to lend her voice and lyrics to McCusker’s “Night Visiting Song.” Rusby’s voice and McCusker’s fiddle are a perfect match. Their sense of lyricism and quiet emotion is unparallelled in the traditional folk world, and Yella Hoose (yellow house) sounds like paradise.

John Doyle, Wayward Son Irish guitarist/singer John Doyle first became known for the ferocious rhythm playing with which he drove the Irish band Solas through four brilliant albums and countless gigs. Since leaving Solas, recording his first solo album (Evening Comes Early), and playing on albums by Kate Rusby, Tim O’Brien, Liz Carroll, and others, the full extent of his talents as a fingerstyle accompanist, fiddle-tune flatpicker, singer, and songwriter have been revealed. But a deep sense of groove still pervades everything he does, and for his second solo album he’s assembled an incredible acoustic power trio with bassist Danny Thompson and percussionist Kenny Malone. Aided by fiddlers Stuart Duncan, Casey Driessen, John McCusker, and Carroll as well as former Solas mates Seamus Egan (whistle) and John Williams (accordion), the band’s unique Celtic/newgrass groove is as infectious as it is inventive, providing the perfect bed for Doyle’s mellow, relaxed voice—joined on these English, Irish, and American folk songs by Rusby, O’Brien, and Linda Thompson. Doyle’s fiery, nuanced flatpicking leads the (traditional and original) dance tune medleys, and his guitar is front and center on everything else, whether he’s driving the band with his signature, syncopated strums or spinning folk filigree behind the singing, yet this is not a “guitar album,” just one of the best all-around traditional folk albums of the young century.

Equation, First Name Terms Since the departure of cofounder, fiddler, and songwriter Seth Lakeman, the English folk-rock band Equation has coalesced around guitarist Sean Lakeman and singer Kathryn Roberts. The pair are now the band’s main songwriters, exploring the contemporary trials of the same sort of downtrodden, forlorn characters found in 200-year-old trad ballads. Lakeman’s grooving fingerpicked acoustic guitar (influenced by Nic Jones as well as James Taylor) defines the lush harmonies of songs like “Rise Up and Deny” and “Clare” and his punchy flatpicked rhythm would drive songs like “Speak Your Thoughts” and “Full Speed” even without the band’s excellent rhythm section. Roberts proves to be a penetrating and poetic songwriter and her singing is as espressive and rich as ever.

Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge, Avalon The jazz and bluegrass/country worlds have been meeting on a regular basis for quite some time, with sometimes mixed but always intriguing results. The entire genre of western swing, with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys the most well-known representative, may be the most obvious merging of the styles, but other jazz/country meetings include Homer and Jethro’s swingin’ novelty takes on country songs, jazz guitarist Hank Garland’s work on Nashville fiddle sessions in the ‘50s, David Grisman’s Dawg music, Bill Frisell’s Nashville album and ongoing duet relationship with roots slide guitarist Greg Leisz, and folk chanteuse Aoife O’Donovan’s recent work with trumpeter Dave Douglas, to name just a few. This guitar duo recording featuring two of the hottest young guitarists in jazz and progressive bluegrass is the latest, and one that should also get added to anyone’s list of great guitar-duo recordings.

Julian Lage is a jazz guitar prodigy who was playing with jazz icon Gary Burton when he was still in his teens and who has since collaborated with Mark O’Connor, Joshua Bell, Nels Cline, Jim Hall, Eric Harland, and many other jazz and contemporary artists. His album Sounding Point was nominated for a Best Contemporary Jazz Album Grammy in 2010. Chris “Critter” Eldridge grew up in a bluegrass household (his father is Seldom Scene banjoist Ben Eldridge) but has been drawn to the leading edge of acoustic roots music, studying with Tony Rice while in college and helping found both the Infamous Stringdusters and Punch Brothers (his current main gig).

Most guitar duos that work well tend to consist of players with easily identifiable styles (Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson or Tony Rice and Norman Blake, for example), and you would think that with such different backgrounds Lage and Eldridge would be the same. But, while there are certainly times when it’s clear who’s playing lead (the Gypsy jazz licks tend to be Lage’s and the Doc Watson licks tend to be Eldridge’s), the tones of their guitars (both 1930s mahogany-body Martins; Lage’s a 1939 000-18 and Eldridge’s a 1937 D-18) are so similar and their entwined lines so complementary, it’s often difficult to know who’s playing which part. This may be because both guitarists are such complete, virtuosic players they can kind of play anything they want. They don’t simply trot out their signature licks, and are thus more apt to develop melodies in response to the other’s playing. In addition, unlike most jazz guitarists having a go at bluegrass, Lage’s feel perfectly matches that of Eldridge (who grew up with bluegrass time in his genes/jeans). The opening track, “Stone Cross,” is proof of that: an original newgrass-ish tune by Lage, who plays the melody first, followed by alternating, wildly inventive solos from the two guitarists, and the underlying bluegrass pulse never flags.

This is not just an instrumental recording, however. Eldridge sings six songs, three of which seem to be homages to the Seldom Scene (John Starling’s “Mean Mother Blues,” Paul Craft’s “Keep Me from Blowing Away,” and Phil Rosenthal’s “Open Up the Window, Noah”), as well as Norman Blake’s “Ginseng Sullivan,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time,” and George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Eldridge has a pleasant, unvarnished singing voice, and it’s nice to see it showcased so much here, although it doesn’t always work. “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a bit of a stretch for him. He’s more comfortable on the more old-time/bluesy songs, particularly “Any Old Time” and “Mean Mother Blues,” but his voice is also just right for Craft’s world-weary “Blowing Away.”

Lage’s instrumental originals are where the more exploratory interplay happens: “Steady Proof,” “Butter and Eggs,” and especially the nine-minute “Wilson’s Waltz.” But each piece on the recording (lovingly produced/recorded by Kenneth Pattengal) includes sections where structured roles fade and Lage and Eldridge react without preconceptions to the other’s playing. These moments make this much more than just a meeting of two virtuosic pickers from different, yet complementary, worlds. Lage and Eldridge both have plenty of musical opportunities (and commitments) to keep them busy, but let’s hope this is a long-lasting partnership. I won’t get tired of spinning this disc any time soon, but I do eagerly await a follow up.

The Mysteries of Life, Come Clean Singer-songwriter-guitarist Jake Smith and his bandmates have produced an album of heartland power pop that adds another link to the chain forged by Buddy Holly, Big Star, and R.E.M. The band’s unadorned arrangements and loose playing on bass, drums, and electric guitar (with occasional harmonica and piano flourishes) grow organically from Smith’s bass-string riffs. His sardonic, romantic slacker tales, delivered in a phlegmatic Jackson Browne–like voice, are wedded to a set of catchy folk-rock melodies—just the kind of music you wish was leaking out of the garage next door.

Sam Mangwana, Galo Negro Congolese legend Mangwana has produced a wonderful summing-up of his long career that features the sweet and supple nylon- and steel-string guitar of Papa Noël. Mangwana’s rich, weathered tenor voice sings in Portuguese and Lingala (a Congolese language) with sparse backing from electric bass, light percussion, accordion, a charming female chorus, and Noël’s omnipresent bubbly guitar. Mangwana’s rumba Congolese is an infectious and inventive fusion of rhythms that at times recalls Cape Verdean morna, Colombian vallenata, beguines from Martinique, bossa nova, and the soukous Mangwana first played with his mentors Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco. A pan-African feast.

Martin Simpson, The Bramble Briar Multifaceted guitarist Martin Simpson revisits his English folk roots on this exquisite blend of guitar virtuosity and traditional balladry that ranks with the best of Nic Jones and Martin Carthy. Simpson’s baroque guitar parts prove that complexity can serve a song as well as simplicity. Fingerstyle guitar freaks will delight in the florid accompaniments on “Fair Annie” and “Rounding the Horn” as well as the quirky phrasing of “Betsy the Serving Maid” and the title track, but Simpson keeps the piquant stories in these trad songs at the forefront. It doesn’t hurt that his guitar tone is at once fat and sparkling. If that’s not enough, Martin Carthy backs Simpson on two instrumentals, “The Princess Royal” and the slide feature “The Lover’s Ghost,” and helps create a lush, contrapuntal, two-guitar bed for the modern sea shanty “Sammy’s Bar.

Claire Lynch, Love Light Bluegrass singer-songwriter Claire Lynch has been plying the sort of acoustic country popularized by Alison Krauss for more than two decades. But where Krauss’ band Union Station specializes in a stony-faced intensity, Lynch’s Front Porch String Band wraps her luminous alto in a sunny swing. Jim Hurst is one of Nashville’s freshest guitar voices, incorporating flatpicking fire, country fingerstyle flash, and exuberant swing into his crisp acoustic solos and fills. Mandolinist Larry Lynch and bassist Missy Raines ably follow wherever Claire’s muse leads them, through bluesy swing (“Jealousy”), pop country (“I Don’t Have to Dream”), and elegiac bluegrass (“Keep My Love There”). Lynch’s Love Light is ablaze and thankfully shows no signs of dimming.

Väsen, Gront The fab four of the Swedish folk scene venture further into the exotic lands of multicultural world music with this all-original release. Though their music is based in traditional Scandinavian folk forms (polskas, waltzes), Väsen can fool unsuspecting listeners into thinking they’ve wandered into a club in North Africa, the Middle East, India, or Renaissance Italy. Gront has a dark and intense feel and is the most programmatic of the band’s recordings, but the melodies are strong, the rhythms are complex and punchy, and the exotic sounds are created acoustically. Guitarist Roger Tallroth’s inventive playing, full of contrapuntal lines and oblique harmonies, takes more of the lead than in recent recordings, but this is a true band effort, with Olov Johansson’s nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle), Mikael Marin’s viola, and André Ferrari’s percussion all having an equal impact. Väsen is essential listening for world music fans—the most hummable odd-meter music around.

 Catie Curtis, A Crash Course in Roses If there were an American Bandstand for singer-songwriters, Catie Curtis would surely be its highest-scoring scribe. Her danceable, hummable tunes provide just the right setting for the bent-but-not-broken characters in this baker’s dozen of radio-friendly songs. Curtis’ groovin’ acoustic guitar provides the rhythmic underpinning, locking in with a great rhythm section, while Duke Levine’s acoustic and electric guitars and Jimmy Ryan’s mandolins provide the grit, snap, and sparkle. But Curtis is not just a party girl. “Roses” is one of the most poignant antiwar songs ever written, a meditation on family, religion, and duty, set to a heartbreaking melody.

Tara Nevins, Mule to Ride Old-time fiddler Tara Nevins, who has explored a fusion of old-time and power pop with the Heartbeats and hippie groove jams with Donna the Buffalo, turns her sights to early bluegrass and country music on her first solo outing. While her ferocious old-time fiddle remains the main melody instrument, she revs the tempos and adds bluegrass tenor harmonies from Ralph Stanley and Don Rigsby to standards like “Pig in a Pen” and “Down the Road,” creating a powerful sound much like that of the Stanley Brothers or Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Rhythm guitarist Jim Miller’s clear, pure vocals have been the highlight of every recording he’s graced, and his lead vocals on 11 of these 20 cuts make this the closest thing yet to a much-hoped-for Jim Miller solo album.

Jenna Moynihan, Woven One reason for the enduring popularity of the violin/fiddle in all kinds of music is its similarity to the human voice, and the measure of a great fiddler (OK, I’m using the vernacular term from here on) is his or her ability to make the instrument “sing.” By that measure, Jenna Moynihan is a great fiddler, as she convincingly demonstrates on her debut recording Woven.For those unfamiliar with the contemporary Scottish music of Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, Hanneke Cassel, and others, praising an album of Scottish fiddling for its soulful lyricism may seem surprising. If so, let Woven introduce you to the expressive possibilities of traditional and original Celtic music in the hands of one of its most talented young practitioners.

The material here flits between traditional and recently written tunes (three of them by Moynihan), and the arrangements are fluid and natural, yet often surprising, occasionally featuring contemporary bluegrass-oriented string musicians like Darol Anger, Courtney Hartman, and Alex Hargreaves. Hartman’s guitar playing is particularly notable. On “Haven,” the lead-off track, Hartman creates a unique rhythmic bed with harpist Mairi Chaimbeul (who appears on many of the album’s tracks) for Moynihan’s leaping 3/4 melody, and then kicks off the reel “Dolina MacKay” with a fiery, rhythmic flatpicked rendition of the melody while guitarist Owen Marshall drives the rhythm, later joining Moynihan and Marshall with some contrapuntal lines that make “Dolina MacKay” one of the album’s highlights.

But, as she should, Moynihan takes center stage throughout Woven, “singing” the mournful traditional melodies of “The Eagle’s Whistle” and “The Banks of the Deveron,” weaving her fiddle’s lines with those of Anger or Hargreaves on “O’Sullivan’s March” and her original “crooked” old-time-influenced “The Chill on Montebello,” and kicking Celtic butt on the pipe tune “Major Campbell Graham” and the trio of reels that closes the album. In everything she does, Moynihan proves she’s absorbed and mastered the tradition but is in no way bound by it. As is often said of musicians with such a brilliant debut, Jenna Moynihan is definitely someone “to watch” (you can see her in Laura Cortese’s band the Dance Cards among other places these days), but while you’re watching make sure you listen to the golden sounds she spins on Woven.