june 2008

A Cat Without a Grin, A Grin Without a Cat

By David McGee

Glacier Records

There is one brief moment of hesitation on Bearfoot’s third album. It comes with the first notes from Angela Oudean’s fiddle—jittery, tentative, searching, and all by design, because she is soon joined in long, keening lines by Annalisa Tornfelt’s fiddle, before the two gals are locked in a silky, seductive, three-part harmony with Kate Hamre (who also, on acoustic bass, supplies a subtle, throbbing, album-length pulse), intoning the song’s lone verse, which begins, “Lips as sweet as raspberry wine…”; at the end the twin fiddlers are alone again, quietly bowing a mellow coda, climaxing the rather abstract first leg of the captivating musical journey enticingly titled Follow Me.

Bearfoot hail from Alaska (currently they’re based in Anchorage) and are a quintet, the abovementioned females being joined by guitarist Mike Mickelson and mandolinist Jason Norris. They’ve emerged from their home state with a challenging, rootsy meditation on the commonplace feelings, dilemmas and experiences of ordinary folks trying to get a handle on things, for their own sakes or others’. Although staying resolutely (and appropriately, given the band’s geographical source) Spartan in ambiance, the all-acoustic textures of Follow Me are nigh on to dizzying in their sources. One moment the women settle into countrified, tight-knit, sisterly harmonies reminiscent of fine, underrated sibling aggregates the Forrester Sisters and the McCarters (the piercing choruses of “Just Stay” being a prime example of this unexpected kinship); at another juncture, they’re offering a rustic version of The Boswell Sisters, the groundbreaking ‘30s pop-jazz trio, in the bluesy swagger informing “Go On Home,” out of which Tornfelt (who wrote seven of the 12 songs here) emerges with a growling, throaty solo maneuver that surely would make Connie Boswell smile in appreciation of a legacy inherited; import an Eddie Lang guitar solo and a Joe Venuti fiddle solo into the track and you’d think you’d traveled back in time—but wait, Mickelson adds a pretty good discursive acoustic guitar solo himself, and behind him Oudean is discreetly shadowing him on fiddle. From here the album steps it up and goes on the high-spirited “Follow Me,” a driving, fiddle-fired bluegrass number (and, like the album opening “Molasses,” a spare story, but a story nonetheless, of a girl trying to seduce her reluctant beau, who fears his parents’ retribution if he were to give in to the title sentiment—now there’s a switch, fellas) that rushes headlong to its conclusion in less than two minutes flat. The atmosphere changes again on Tornfelt’s melancholic folk-styled meditation, “Sweet Pea,” an occasion for another emotion-laden fiddle solo from Oudean, who only impresses more as the album unfolds (she has a riveting turn as lead vocalist on Becky Buller’s “Little Bird,” a song whose frolicsome bounce belies a metaphorical text cautioning a lass against investing too much of her heart in an unreliable lover; Oudean not only has a delicious way of wrapping her voice around the world “little,” pronouncing it “lit-ole,” but also sports a touching, country-blues catch in her warm voice, which enhances the urgency of the song’s message by being impossible to ignore, or not to feel). A wistful lament for a doomed love affair, “Sweet Pea” is so explicit in the details of lingering physical memories it emits a visceral charge in unforgettable images such as “He had the brown of a small town in Nebraska/She had the blues of the sea beside Alaska”; further references to orange sunsets, rain turning into dew, “the tattoos of Kansas City” emphasize a fixation on specific geographies of the land and the intellect in evoking the all-consuming nature of a relationship in which two people surrendered everything, body and soul, to each other, lending the plaintive, aching, tear-stained chorus—“Oh my sweet pea, my little baby”—repeated three times—a heartbreaking eloquence born of nothing left to say. Tornfelt’s finest song on the disc is a real stunner. The lilting, winsome “Just Stay” at first seems to be about a homeless single mom and her baby boy following the seasons to the next makeshift shelter, until the woman is revealed not to be abused or bereft of options, but rather surrendering to an insatiable wanderlust, to be anywhere but where she is right now, dragging her four-year-old with her while he pleads only for a real home, in one place where they can dwell together. “Maaamaa, just stay/Why you gotta go/All the time,” the women plead in assuming the boy’s character, their voices rising in plaintive, heartbreaking harmony against a gently shuffling backdrop of fiddle, mandolin and softly fingerpicked guitar. Still harmonizing quietly, the women offer a comforting, “Ba-ay-be,” then Tornfelt takes over, in a soft, soothing voice, delivering the paralyzing news that “my home is in your eyes,” before the other two women join her to restate it: “My home is in my baby boy’s eyes,” preceding Oudean’s crying fiddle outro over discreet, deft mandolin and guitar punctuations by Norris and Mickelson, respectively. Leaving unanswered the question as to whether the mother is rational and loves completely, but without complete understanding, or is so emotionally crippled she can’t sense a connection between her irresponsible behavior and pain inflicted so callously even love will never heal it. Tornfelt is impressive enough as a vocalist and fiddler, but the emotional depth and narrative richness of her original material bespeak an artist capable of becoming one of her generation’s most important songwriters.

However breathtakingly potent Bearfoot’s distaff side, beware of slighting the essential work of Mickelson and Norris. The former has a nice moment rendering a sprightly version of Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues” in a warm, comfortable voice reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s, whereas Norris’s conversational, Shooter Jennings-redolent tenor communicates a world of earnestness and longing in a reflective appeal, “Easier Days.” And as noted above, both young men contribute vital atmospheric enhancements on guitar and mandolin throughout, not merely playing clean and precise, but with an infallible sense for augmenting the often-elevated emotions in play.

Despite this being Bearfoot’s third album, Follow Me represents the group’s first real stab at establishing a solid presence down here in the States (Alaskans often refer to the lower 48 as “the States,” appropriately enough for a place so drastically different and fiercely apart from the rest of the union). They used to call themselves Bearfoot Bluegrass. They were right to go with the single moniker, not because they are any less a bluegrass band now—they put the lie to that notion frequently over the course of the album, but one listen to the invigorating solo and ensemble give-and-take on the lively fiddle instrumental, “Village Idiot,” should convince anyone from which musical well these musicians spring—but because “bluegrass,” even in all its expansiveness, is too limiting to suggest what happens in their songs. The album closes as enigmatically as it began, with another Tornfelt original, “Sold My Soul To An Angel,” in which the women band in dirge-like harmony, haunting and ethereal, accompanied only by Oudean’s spectral, ominous fiddling. Are they singing of a temptress who lured a “true lover’s heart” to her lair (“her sugar sank him to his knees”) or are they singing of a literal death? Is there any difference? Annalisa Tornfelt is in her songs, and then suddenly she disappears, a musical Cheshire cat leaving without supplying answers to our puzzlements. But she’s always there, even when she’s not.

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!”

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024