April 2017 Album of the Month
Cajuns use the word lagniappe (LAN-yap) to describe a small gift thrown in as a bonus. Compass Records recently did this for me. I requested a review copy of another Compass artist, which is very good. But they also threw in a download for Quiles and Cloud and it's safe to say that I adored Shake Me Now. If you're wondering about the band's agnomen, it's a combo of the last names of Maria Quiles (vocals/guitar) and Rory Cloud (guitar/vocals). The band also includes bass player Oscar Westesson.
The title track is indicative of how the trio approaches its material. The appellation suggests a song that rocks, but this is not that sort of record. The group has won a few bluegrass awards, but genre wise, Shake Me Now rests in the seam where folk, bluegrass, jazz, and Americana overlap. The group doesn't try to shake anyone— the effect is more like being swaddled in velvet. If I had to classify this record I'd say it's like Appalachian music without the twang and with its raw edges smoothed and soothed. Quiles and Cloud can ratchet the excitement when need be, as on "Black Sky Lightning," the opening track that hooked me, but it's the soft side that really highlights how special they are. As Alasdair Fraser often observes, most reasonably talented musicians can play fast, but you have to be really good to play slowly. And sometimes that's the best route for bringing home a song's essence. Check out the tender "Mississippi River," which makes you want to join the vocalists as they drift away from dull care. Think you know the Dylan song "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere?" Check out what Quiles and Cloud do with it and you might conclude you've never really heard it before. Maria Quiles has a voice that bathes you in gentleness, even when she comes at you strong, and her close harmonies with Cloud are a thing to behold. "Faded Flowers" is a particularly fine example of this, plus it's another beautiful heart-tugger.
The warmth of the vocals is skillfully contrasted with and integrated into Rory Cloud's robust flat-picking, Quiles' rhythm guitar, and Westesson's standup bass, which he sometimes bows to provide resonant bottom and atmospheric ambience. This winning formula is used on the trio's thoughtful mix of originals, covers, and traditional songs. Of the last, there is a delightfully restrained version of "Worried Man Blues," a jazzy, finger-popping take on "Feelin' Good," and a version of "Deep Ellum Blues" that's simultaneously countrified, soulful, and haunting. My only complaint is that this San Francisco-based trio won't be anywhere near me in 2017. But I'm eternally grateful to Compass for the best lagniappe I've received in quite some time.