CD & Book Reviews
Constant Ivy Music
It’s a pretty rare event when an unsigned band wins an American Music Award and gets a chance to play on the award ceremony broadcast, the commercial music industry’s annual orgy of self-congratulation. (Unlike the Grammys, most of the AMAs are based on record sales, not critical acclaim.) It’s even more remarkable when the band in question has a fresh, folky, decidedly noncommercial sound, a frontman who plays tin whistle, and an electric mandolin player!
But such is the case with Richmond, Virginia’s Carbon Leaf, which has already made the leap from moderately successful college band to respected regional band, and seems poised for the next level, whatever that is. On their current release, Echo Echo, the quintet combines catchy, intricate tunes with pleasingly nuanced vocals, successfully blending their influences so that fans of pop/rock, "jam bands," and Celtic/folk music should all find something they like.
The band writes its music collectively, with lead vocalist Barry Privett contributing all the lyrics (except on the band's high-octane, crowd-pleasing version of the traditional "Mary Mac"). His writing borders on the abstract (although reportedly less so on this release than on the band’s earlier discs) and his subject matter is deeply personal, but there’s just enough attention to universal themes to keep the listener involved. Most of the songs are thoughtful and introspective, but humor ("Today I strike out on my own / The dog is dead, the kids have grown") and irony ("And I’d like to change the world / It’s easier than changing me") keep them from being too heavy-handed. As with all great songwriting, there’s a strong marriage between lyric and melody: words that look confusing on the lyric sheet gain a certain clarity when you listen to the song.
But after all, why should I analyze the lyrics? This is an electric mandolin site! Carter Gravatt is your man. He sticks to guitar on about half of the cuts, but he liberally sprinkles the others with acoustic mandolin, bouzouki, and a 5-string Ron Oates electric. On "Shine," for example, Carter can be heard doing some cool choked chords, quick licks, and jangly rhythm playing on the aforementioned Rono, which also shows up on "Wanderin’ Around," "Mellow Tone," and "Maybe Today." He doesn’t do a lot of lead work on mandolin, but does shower the listener with plenty of tasteful rhythms and catchy licks. Acoustic mandolin and/or bouzouki are in evidence on "Wanderin’ Around, " "Follow the Lady," "Desperation Song," and a hidden track called "My Dear," and it’s nice to hear how well these instruments can integrate with the basic rock’n’roll lineup of guitar, bass, and drums, given sensitive composing and arranging. On the whole, this is a tight, well-produced, and highly impressive disc, and Carter is a big part of its success. He modestly told me his mandolin playing has improved a lot since recording Echo Echo, so he must be an absolute monster by now.
Overall: Emando content: