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Crooked Still, Hop High (Footprint Records)
by: Steve Horowitz

The Boston folk scene of the early sixties was the home of many great musicians and songsters, most notably Joan Baez. Strains of Baez's vocals can be found in the voice of the New England singer Aoife O'Donovan from Boston's folk band extraordinaire, Crooked Still. The group's sparkling debut release Hop High features not quite a dozen traditional and traditional-sounding tunes, including the lurid Western murder ballad "Flora," which the liner notes indicate was learned from Baez's old recording. Crooked Still takes the song's melodramatic twists and turns into a more Spaghetti-Western landscape than the original, and give the music a quick and darting intensity from verse to verse. This ain't your mother's queen of folk, but something more extreme and contemporary.

O'Donovan's breathy, intimate vocals beguile the listener, with the voice a combination of that of an old friend and someone who may be more seductive and sinister. This initially diverts the listeners from being fully aware of the odd set of stringed instruments that frame and intertwine with O'Donovan's pipes. The other members of Crooked Still include cellist Richard Eggleston, double-bassist Corey DeMario, and banjoist Gregory Liszt. They bow, pick, and strum as clean and crisply as any Bluegrass or Old Time band, but the unusual instrumentation makes the sound seem simultaneously strange and familiar. Consider the band's approach to folk standards such as "Shady Grove" and "Darling Corey." These songs has provided many instrumental thrills for listeners as in the past as fiddlers and mandolinists have broken down the melody and cut against each other in competitions for speed and/or tone. Here the cello and double-bass make the joyful noises, with the aid of the traditional banjo. The rumble of the double-bass adds a gritty bottom to the music, while the cello intones darkly. Meanwhile the deft banjo picking sounds like a comforting rain shower accompanying O'Donovan's warm articulations. The results make the songs new again.

The disc's title comes from the words to Appalachian fiddler Dirk Powell's lively "Lulu Gal." Cellist Eggleston swiftly bows the tune about "being in the pen with rough and rowdy men" as the rest of the band build into a high gear. O'Donovan's percussive chorus of "Hop High" keeps the energy flowing. On the other end of the tempo spectrum comes Bluesman Robert Johnson's slow ditty "Last Fair Deal Gone Done." DeMario's double-bass adds a moaning quality to the performance in counterpoint to Eggleston's melodious cello.

Other highlights include the sweet, pining "Angeline the Baker," which includes some additional help of guest fiddle of Brittany Haas on five-string fiddle and Jake Amerding on vocals. The song seamlessly moves from sense to nonsense as the groove steams up and forms a rollicking beat. Crooked Still also execute a powerful version of Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl." The tune begins with Liszt rapidly plucking the banjo notes to create a pleasant intensity by the time O'Donovan starts to sing and the rest of the band joins in the music. This ennobles the sad lyrics ("I have no mother/no father/no brother/I am an orphan girl") into something more than just another sorrowful tune.

Crooked Still perform a cover of "Rank Stranger," whose cello led instrumentation seems to owe more to Lou Reed's urban classic "Street Hassle" than the well-known gospel version by The Stanley Brothers. The sawed strings and apocalyptic lyrics grate on each other. The instrumentation creates the impression of immanent calamity while O'Donovan's voice offers spiritual redemption. This makes the song, which has been recorded by a wealth of celebrated artists from fifties honky-tonk angel Kitty Wells to alternative rocker Vic Chestnutt, something new. Crooked Still do much more than just repeat the past by performing traditional songs, the group refreshes these tunes and enhances their vitality for the 21st century.