Sunday, June 8, 2014

Prescription Bluegrass CD Review - GRITS & SOUL Flood Waters!

Image635378038761126348I find myself drawn to new music that expands the borders of traditional music, that edginess is what I search for. That first generation of bluegrass and country music innovators is what I was raised on; and, I can’t remember a time when my parents weren’t listening to the latest hits when I was a kid. But, pushing those boundaries and adding different nuances and personalities to the traditional mix excites me!

Sometimes the experimentation is a total failure, but, when it works, and some new inflection is added to that “old” mix, my ears tell my heart to listen up and pay attention. That’s the case with the release of FLOOD WATERS, by the duo/band “Grits & Soul.“

Anna Kline and John Looney have written eleven songs that take me right back to the music of my formative years. They have a real grip and feel for that old sound, and, they’ve got the talent and intestinal fortitude to do it their own way, today!

Remember those mini-jukeboxes that so many restaurants had attached to the table back in the '50’s and into the '60’s? (For my younger readers who were born long after they were laid to rest, you could flip through the pages listing the songs, deposit your coins, push the appropriate buttons and play your favorite tunes while you ate breakfast!) I seem to remember it costing 25 cents for three plays. My brother and I each got to pick one, and then Mom and Dad would get a pick. I remember my Dad always had a pocket full of quarters and meals took a long time to consume! There is a definite connect from way back then to the music I’m hearing from “Grits & Soul” today. Call it an echo from the past invading my here and now.

When I first heard about Anna Kline and John Looney, AKA “Grits & Soul,“ I went to YouTube and found a lot of videos of just the two of them performing, and several more videos of the CD release party with a full band backing them. I have to say that I much prefer the intimacy of the duo … just Anna on guitar and John on mandolin.

"There is an emotive beauty to what Anna does with her voice, and the listener will hear different sides of her on each and every song."

For some reason, there is a warmth and personality that they share together that I find refreshing and definitive. All they need is the two of them to make great music! The strength of their original songs, and the unique sounds of their voices, separate and together, make them special in my mind. Yes, all the backing instruments make for a full, enjoyable, more commercial and entertaining CD, but … the real backbone of this recording is Anna and John.

Prepare yourself ahead of time for Anna’s voice. Think of the rawness of Bessie Smith, the strut of Janis Joplin and the vibrato of Joan Baez, and you’ll have an approximation of her power. When Anna sings higher in her register, that vibrato is even more pronounced, and as a Joan Baez fan, it knocks me out! There is an emotive beauty to what Anna does with her voice, and the listener will hear different sides of her on each and every song. She has some vocal chops that are unlike any other female singer I’ve heard! John has a more normal, but still strong and individualized, timbre to his voice that off sets Anna’s voice in a blend that you won’t hear anywhere else but in their singing.

The beauty of their vocal blend is most pronounced on my favorite song, “Hundred Year Farm.” They sing the entire song together in harmony, and the lyrics and melody are perfect for their voices to mesh very tenderly. The song was written about and dedicated to family members of Anna’s, and it harkens back to so many of those Depression Era tunes. Simple, honest and lovely in it’s delivery. I keep pushing REPLAY when this CD is in my truck.

Seven of the songs were recorded at the Compass Records upstairs studio in Nashville, and engineered by Jim Cooley. The remaining four were engineered by Rudi Ekstein at Foxfire Studio in Ashville, NC. Rudi and Grits & Soul produced and mixed it, and it was mastered by Kent Bruce.

The overall production is right on the money and I should take the time to congratulate Rudi Ekstein on a job well done. His studio input is all over this CD, and I also feel he did a good job of nailing down that Grits & Soul aura. Finding just the right producer to help an artist develop their own sound and then to get that sound captured onto a CD isn’t always an easy task, but I think this is a successful representation.

There are two songs in particular that stand out as radio friendly and single material: the uptempo “Blue Friday,” with John singing lead vocals, and “Lights On The Mountain,” where Anna carries the lead vocal. Both have a flashy banjo kick off by Kyle Tuttle that grabs you right away. John plays a great guitar solo on the former and Jay Starling lays down a sweet dobro solo on the latter. Lyrically strong, with very memorable melodies and powerful harmonies, they are both bluegrass winners.

One of the two fiddlers they use is Lyndsay Pruett, and on two bluesy numbers, “Flood Waters,” and the ¾ time waltz, “Just Say The Word,” she adds a very distinct gypsy jazz flavor to the tunes. I don’t know if that’s just the way she plays fiddle, or it was a thought out, “lets try this sound” effort, but, it works and I like it! Both are strong arrangements that have Adam Chaffee driving the songs along nicely on upright bass. I love how the bass is recorded on this entire CD, whether it be Adam, or their other bass player, Rob Parks, the bass is always up front, pushy (in a good way!) and alive sounding in the mix. Kudos to two very fine bass players!

"Very dynamic vocals to say the least  . . .  This is three part harmony at it’s best! "

There is only one instrumental on the CD, “Carolina Fox Chase,” and it shows off the best the four pickers playing on it have to offer. John Looney plays both super hot mandolin solos and rhythm guitar, Rob Parks is on upright bass, Nicky Sanders is on fiddle and Mr. Drew Matulich plays some extra fine lead acoustic guitar. I also especially like the interplay between John’s mandolin and Nicky’s fiddle. Is it harmony? Is it lick for lick? Whatever … they sure do push each to be as good as possible. GOOOOD TUNE!!! And the time, tempo and groove never falter! EVER!

Two of the numbers have a definite country feel to them. “Listen Here, Darlin’,” which features the harmony vocals of Robert Greer instead of John, and “Guilty Conscience.” “Listen Here” has that old-timey bar room, minor key drama to it, and features dobro player Jackson Dulaney sliding and crying against some very solid walking bass lines from Rob Parks. Both gentlemen play up the emotion at just the right times!

“Guilty Conscience” has some of the nicest chord changes on the recording, and I love that the band is so tight that they can play the verses with a straight country feel and switch to a ¾ time waltz on the chorus! Foolin’ around with the time signature is NOT for the faint of heart, but, these guys do it with ease. Nice…

The most traditional sounding song they have recorded is the very first one you’ll hear, “Marretta Jeane.” It’s obvious from the get-go that they have learned the lessons the founding fathers of bluegrass were trying to teach them. Come to think of it, this one would make a good single to be released for radio airplay, too.

“Shame On Me,” is another personal favorite, and Anna just plain KILLS this minor key number! I would love to hear her do more tunes like this one. John plays some nice mandolin against Jay Starling’s sweet dobro licks, and the result is another gem in hiding. I had to go back several times to make sure how nice the song was. It was a bit overshadowed by some of the more over powering tunes, but, listen closely and you’ll hear how tasty it is.

The very last song has Anna singing an a cappella song with Amanda Anne Platt and Annie Myers. What a cool way to end the CD!!! Very dynamic vocals to say the least. Anna dedicated the song to her Grandmothers, and it was inspired by the novel The River Witch, by Kimberly Brock. This trio needs to sing together as much as possible. This is three part harmony at it’s best! I also feel John and Anna should dig this deep into different types of subject matter and come up with more songs this well crafted. Now I’m going to have to find out more about the novel it was based on!

Anna and John have written eleven really good songs, worked extremely hard to get them recorded just right, used some extra fine pickers on their sessions and succeeded at presenting themselves very well to the record buying public. They have also given bluegrass radio some very good songs to choose from for airplay. Do I think this CD should be in your collection? YEP … give these fine musicians a chance to impress you like they have me.

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