Seed of a Pine was recorded in Chicago in summer 2011 as a collaboration between Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer and really displays their gift for song writing and musical expression. This album must be heard. I had not previously come across the artists and was unsure as to what I would hear when I hit the play button. At the first strums of acoustic guitar and McGraw’s baritone vocals I sensed an album of the Americana singer-songwriter ilk, which to my mind is no bad thing. However, by the time Fer’s country-edged vocal, electric guitar and mournful strings were laid on me I realised that there was so much more to Seed of a Pine. Here we have an album that pushes the bounds of Americana, country and rock whilst being littered with some of the most striking vocal harmonies you are likely to hear.
So Comes the Day is the first track – the one which lulled me with its opening stanza. Dave McGraw has a soft and yet powerful vocal delivery which really comes to the fore when coupled with Fer’s almost etherial backing on the chorus – there is perhaps a nod to The Civil Wars in places. This is a magical start to the album. The electric guitar creeps in gently so that by the end of the song there is a rich and rounded tapestry of sound underscored by a sorrowful string accompaniment. McGraw and Fer have set their stall out early and leave you wondering exactly what is coming next.
As the album develops it becomes clear that this is a 50/50 collaboration – a two-way street. Mandy Fer is no guest vocalist here. Golden Grey sparks into life with Fer in the driving seat and this time it is McGraw who adds the harmony. It is a dream-like song – “If I can’t find home beneath these blankets then I’ll hide within my dreams for now”. Double-bass underpins the action and the intricate picking on the electric guitar between verses serves to emphasise the country imagery in this song of love and longing.
A slightly harder, rockier style is unveiled in Serotiny (May Our Music) where Fer’s twangy, almost bassy electric guitar sets the rhythm. Again the melody and harmony bring a beauty to this song – a song straight from the hearts of the musicians in which they sing of picking up guitars in the fields at night with lightening all around and lament that they have got nothing but their words. “May our music be heard” they sign off. Even with this being a heavier song the chorus is whispered and melodic and will evoke scenes of western sunsets and tranquility.
One of the stand-out tracks on Seed of a Pine is the wonderful Forget the Diamonds where the tempo changes to a jazzy country rock (almost salsa at points) – a strange combination but this works well. The artists share the vocals and the chorus simply captivates in a laid-back jazzy toe-tapper, juxtaposed with the music between the verses which is sombre & downbeat. This is a song which completely breaks the mould and is well worth more than one listen.
The song writing on the album is solid country fare and seems to be arranged in such a way as to bring the absolute best out of the vocal interplay between McGraw and Fer, whether it be on the quiet, late-night songs such as If You Will or on songs like Waking the Sleeper which culminates in a heavy and lumbering rock style. It is easy to see why these two decided to combine their talents – they have a musical affinity which is borne out in a magical way on this album.
The title track is another slow, soft and sleepy country blues wanderer which grows as each instrument is added and Fer’s vocals ease in on the chorus. A dirty, bluesy guitar riff guides the song along towards its destination with a swagger. Here there are shades of Simone Felice’s Duke & The King project. As with much of Felice’s work Seeds of a Pine is a brooding grower that offers more and more upon each listen. Magnificent stuff!
As the album nears its conclusion they take a trip back to their home in Northwestern Washington State as they look towards Western Skies in one of their simpler and more stripped-back songs. McGraw’s vocal and guitar long to be back home. Again Fer adds her vocal harmonies and a little lap-steel to add colour to the landscape. This is the sort of song their home State’s Tourist Board should use on their TV ad campaign – I know I want to go there after hearing this and I want to take my guitar with me!
Looking at their website it is clear that Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer are doing the hard yards with their constant touring of the States. It would be a great treat to see two such talented musicians sharing a stage and this, their first recorded collaboration, gives them an enviable body of work to draw from in a live performance. Seed of a Pine is packed with emotive and beautiful songs which brilliantly showcases their talent. This is an album which deserves some serious recognition and I am quite sure there will be more to come from this duo.
Review by: Craig Walker
Download Seed of a Pine from Amazon here
Photo Credit: Ken Hamilton