The Threshold and the Hearth
Rock Ridge Music
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It’s hardly late-breaking news that musical genres are collapsing at the speed of a North Korean housing development. It’s musical succotash these days, though far too many musicians mash things simply because they can, and in ways as aurally bland as lima beans and canned corn. Thank goodness there are bands like The Ragbirds that add tasty ingredients. This Ann Arbor-based quintet is an indie pop/folk rock/world music hybrid and its fifth album, The Threshold and the Hearth, is its best yet.
Evocations of Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel spring to mind, though its anchor is the dulcet-toned Erin Zindle, who wields fiddles, mandolins, and accordions to provide fiery contrast to her calming voice. The Ragbirds are unusual in that they are percussion heavy. Erin’s brother, T. J. Zindle, provides acoustic and electric guitar but her husband, Randall Moore, lays down doumbek, tabla, and other percussion; Jon Brown adds a conventional drum kit, and Dan Jones is on bass—whenever he too isn’t playing some sort of drum. Songs such as “Cosmos,” “The Bottomless Heart,” and “TheCurse of Finger Pointing” have definite West African influences—both in their sunny, exuberant feel and in Zindle’s fingerstyling. (Many West African rhythms now played on guitar are derived from the kora.)
Optimism reigns on this album, no matter what musical traditions The Ragbirds mine. And they mine many. The aforementioned “Cosmos,” for example, also sports some Zindle fiddle work that is both jazzy and quasi-Celtic. She switches to the squeeze box for “Good Time to be Born,” in which her goes-down-easy voice moves us from bleakness—“There’s a stranger with a cart full of useless stuff”—to universal themes of shared humanity: “My own shopping cart is full of compromise/There is always peace, there is always war/But beauty’s always being born.” Considered arrangement of material also keeps us on our toes and in touch with our better angels. Check out the way the last eight tracks roll. In “Sometimes Honestly,” Zindle admits that constant honesty is its own burden and intones, “Luck is just a choice you make.” This is followed by the harder edged “Alleyway Saints” in which T.J.’s electric guitar is fluid but edgy; then it’s introspective piano for “Strange Weather,” Erin’s slow, personal exploration of how a couple negotiates everyday life, with changeable weather the central metaphor. “Tough Love” is a natural follow up with its splashes of energetic mando, its clipped pacing, and a soulful chorus.
That emotional/musical pattern is followed again for the next four songs, my favorites of which were “We Carry This Place,” which felt like a contemplative update of themes Joni Mitchell explored in “Circle Game;” and “Little Ties,” which is folky, vaguely Appalachian, has a sing-along feel, and a fiddle part that’s what you’d get if you put some hand jive to strings. Most of the album’s songs are about renewal and I felt refreshed from listening. They call themselves The Ragbirds, but there’s nothing shabby about them. –Rob Weir