Crooked Still

Some Strange Country

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Crooked Still continue to redefine the parameters of bluegrass and progressive folk with their unique take on the old-time music they love. The tunes on Some Strange Country are mostly traditional, but the band infuses them with a subtle bluegrass virtuosity, chamber music attitude, and solos that often sound like they were borrowed from classical music. With Aoife O'Donovan's luminous vocals, Tristan Clarridge's dark, energetic free-form cello, the unclassifiable five-finger banjo picking style of Gregory Liszt, Brittany Haas on the five-string fiddle, and Corey DiMario's jazzy approach to the standup bass, you have a band that's ready to think, and play, outside of the box. The arrangements on Some Strange Country are warm and mellow; the tunes glow like the embers of a late-night summer fire infusing the air with a comforting smell of hickory smoke. Aoife O'Donovan's voice is the focal point of the album, delivering the songs with the understated virtuosity typical of the best folksingers. She lets the stories she's singing unfold on their own, revealing again their timeless beauty. Liszt's dexterous double-time banjo plays off against Clarridge's measured cello lines to add tension to the opening verses of "The Golden Vanity." Then they pick up the tempo to imply the frantic swimming of the sailor who's being left behind by his shipmates. "Henry Lee" uses a melody that's a variant of "Katie Cruel" for a tale of jealousy and murder, favorite subjects of traditional mountain ballads. O'Donovan's matter-of-fact delivery makes the song even more harrowing. Leadbelly used "I'm Troubled" as the basis for his most famous song, "On Top of Old Smokey." Crooked Still return it to its mountain roots with a slow, measured version that features Liszt's banjo, Haas' fiddle, and Clarridge's brooding cello. The band's originals are fit neatly in with the traditional songs, sounding just as timeless. O'Donovan's "Half of What We Know," the lament of a lover left behind, uses images of the natural world -- wilting roses, storms, deserted beaches -- to paint a bleak picture of a lost love. Clarridge's moaning cello and Liszt's propulsive banjo add to the song's distressing air. O'Donovan, Clarridge, and Haas contribute "You Were Gone," another tale of star-crossed lovers marked by moody cello, weeping fiddle, and sparse banjo. The band adds a subtle bluegrass bounce to its measured performance of the Jagger-Richards oldie "You Got the Silver." O'Donovan's bluesy wail here is the album's most emotional moment.

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