The Fretless: October 2016 Album of the Month

Canada Council for the Arts

Who doesn't love a great instrumental album now and again? October's album of the month comes from a talented Canadian ensemble, The Fretless, who will push the boundaries of how you think about "string bands." The Fretless are fiddle/viola players Karrnnel Sawitsky, Trent Freeman, and Ivonne Henrnandez, plus cellist Eric Wright. Place Mr. Wright's cello approach in the percussive style of folks such as Natalie Haas, Tristan Clarridge, and Ben Sollee. As for the band sound, someone coined the term "progressive chamber traditional" and for once I'm in accord with an invented handle. If you're not sure what that might sound like, think a blend of Celtic, folk, old time music, light classical, and whatever else comes down the pike.

Bird's Nest certainly lines the roost with many-colored feathers. The "Alphonse Mckenzie's" set begins with a faintly Scots-like melody as interpreted by a frenzied fowl. It's fresh and energetic–filled with hops, glides, and embellishments in which the dominant melody emerges from the melding of the various parts. "Jig of the Blood Moon/Kyleback Rambler" *is not your grandmother's Irish music. It sounds odd to say this, but the fiddle notes splatter through the mix until a beat is established that (to me) was evocative of wooden pegs clacking in the cogs of an old mill wheel. But then there's a semi-classical bridge, and the set quickens. But one of the very cool things about this album is that The Fretless are as unbound by expectations as the style of instrument from which their name derives. The title track is moody and mystical–almost as if a bird was gliding home through the fog. "Maybe Molly," one of two traditional tunes on the album, follows it. It has an old-time feel, but instead of adhering to the bluegrass custom of using the theme to segue to solo breakouts, The Fretless blend and overlay sounds. "38 and Gone" goes a different route–it's wistful, contemplative, and deliberate. Also gorgeous. Get the picture? These folks understand that the key to a great instrumental album is to keep listeners slightly off-guard.  Listen carefully for small backswings, nearly imperceptible tempo shifts, and musical ornaments tossed in to embellish, not impress. Listen also to how Wright's cello takes on the growly characteristics of a sleepy bear awakened and ready to swat at his adversaries.

Loved this release–and I think you will too. It's varied, thoughtful, and dynamic.

Rob Weir

*Sometimes the YouTube link to this is prefaced with a pro-Question 2 ad for the upcoming election for Massachusetts residents. I do NOT endorse Question 2.  

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