By: Sarah Hagerman
The departure of cellist Rushad Eggleston and his wild cello last year could have spelled the end of Crooked Still. But newest members Brittany Haas (fiddle) and Tristan Clarridge (cello), fellow Darol Anger's Republic of Strings vets, provide a double assault not to be messed with on Still Crooked (Signature Sounds). The cello growls from the pronounced low end under the topsoil while the vital, living fiddle races across the ground above. They are a welcome addition, and it's a relief to know CS is not packing it in. This band puts Americana under the knife with real distinctive skill, and this latest release pulls off some complicated surgery. Chosen from an assemblage of field recordings as well as contemporary originals and recorded live at Allaire Studios in upstate New York, the results are gripping and just plain gorgeous. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand at rapt attention.
The album treks far and wide from the justifiably classic but relatively comfortable fabric ("Shady Grove," "Rank Stranger," "Little Sadie") that marked Hop High and Shaken by a Low Sound, instead stitching compositions with often overlooked old time and folk tunes as the source material. It opens with "Undone in Sorrow," an Ola Belle Reed song. Reed's spirit of mountain woman strength and spiritual endurance rumbles throughout the record. The arrangement of sea shanty "Captain, Captain" is mid-twentieth century, from a version sung by North Carolina folk singer Rebecca King Jones and features Amy Helm (Levon's daughter, whose band is incidentally called Ollabelle) on vocals. Although the arrangement is lush and the melody tender, the thematic concerns of the song feel heartbreakingly timeless - the story of a soldier's spouse awaiting the inevitable news of her loved one.
Meanwhile, a version of Mrs. Sidney Carter's "Pharaoh" features moaning strings that bubble under Aoife O'Donovan's sultry voice, pulling the haunting spiritual to earth. Traditional "The Absentee" winds around a blindingly fast banjo by the superb Gregory Liszt, a freight train on dexedrine, while O'Donovan's ballad "Low Down and Dirty" is a proud new addition to the shallow grave cannon, featuring a gal at the end of the knife. Over the sinewy cello, she sings, often hovering just a few shades above a whisper, "You're low down and dirty and I love the way you do/ But if I stay I'll never find my way back home." All this murder and pick-and-burn dwell amongst the hearty women, hard times and holy cries – the archetypes of American music's collective unconscious. Everything sonically illuminated, this record is a truly mesmerizing dispatch.
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