Betty And The Boy are quite literally Betty (or to give her full name Bettreena) Jaeger and the boy being Josh Harvey, a versatile self taught multi-instrumentalist, with three other highly talented individuals recruited along the way. Their story has a very modern twist of Facebook stalking, pledge campaigns and bold new fusion styles but is also one that reaches back into America’s musical history, connecting to the wellsprings of folk and bluegrass. Their first full length album, The Wreckage even has a decidedly old-school methodology behind it, based on the simple tenants of good songs, great playing and two captivating lead voices captured in the best way possible. But as the old and new worlds collide, musical forms get deliciously twisted into something highly original and thoroughly enjoyable.
Of course at the heart of the matter (literally, if you take the romantic line), is one of the oldest stories of all. Boy becomes somewhat besotted by girl, makes overtures, which through persistence are eventually answered, they finally meet, drink beer, write songs together until boy gets the flu, girl nurses him back to health, they fall in love and get married. “If only things were so easy,” I hear you say, but perhaps they are. Although you do have to factor in that boy (Josh), is a highly talented musician and was drawn to girl, (Betty), for her gorgeous and distinctive voice as well as her other charms, as he was looking for a way to expand his one man band. That bit clearly worked and they were soon performing as a duo.
They met in Montana where Betty, the daughter of an English professor, was based but have subsequently settled in Eugene, Oregon, which is Josh’s home State as he hails from Portland. Eugene seems to have a thriving music community, as does Oregon in general, but is a small city, roughly equivalent to Chelmsford, Swindon or Bath in the UK. It none the less boasts an orchestra, which is at least partially significant, as along the way the duo have become the Five piece Betty And The Boy.
Of the three recruits, cellist Nanci (or Nancine) McDonald is classically trained and after beginning her playing In Connecticut and Studying in Vermont, seems to have traversed the USA before settling on Oregon, where she also volunteers for the orchestra. Michelle Whitlock, is another prodigiously talented musician and has played the violin since the age of three and originally hails form Indiana. It’s her unique style that favours the lower registers of her instrument that adds another distinctive element to the band and meshes so well with Nanci’s cello. Taking control of the lower end is Jon Conlon, a self taught string bassist, who also has considerable recording nous.
In the case of The Wreckage, however, the recording was done at Eugene’s Gung Ho studio, using all vintage, analogue gear, including vintage microphones. All of the tracks were recorded live with minimal over dubs and mixed to tape, and finally mastered directly from the tape for optimum quality. The sessions were overseen by Billy Barnett who is known locally as the “mad scientist of sound.” As John Fullbright has recently pointed out, that takes a whole lot of skill and really knowing your stuff, or having to go all the way back to the beginning again. You just get the feeling from the relaxed and easy flowing sound of The Wreckage that there weren’t too many rewind problems involved.
Betty and Josh are the songwriters and have obviously contrasting styles, but more than that the arrangements are credited to the other three players, although Josh actually plays, guitar, banjo, mandolin and piano and organ, so makes the biggest overall contribution to the sound. None the less the cello and violin sound and the classical backgrounds of the players also make their presence felt, adding a baroque, chamber orchestration.
All of the elements come into play as the CD opens with the title track. Betty’s gorgeous voice, with its sweet tremor is to the fore and her minimalist guitar style adds another subtle twist to the sound. It gives room for Josh’s steady, bubbling banjo to drive the song along and the strings to add their genre shifting riffs and flurries. “Here it comes, behind your eyes, it’s like a houseplant, begging for light,” Betty sings, before delivering the telling lines, “It’s the wreckage you hold so tight,” finally suggesting, “Let it go.”
Her voice and simple guitar figure, start The Walltz, which lives up to its title and also once more gives Nanci and Michelle a natural platform to explore their musical orientation, while Josh adds a mandolin line that dances around the edges of the melody and the lyrics spin us round the road less travelled.
The first of Josh’s songs Building It Up, starts brightly with a strummed mandolin. He also takes the lead and Betty sings in harmony. The introduction suggests that the song is about to burst into a bluegrass romp, but it doesn’t and is instead restrained, as once again the fiddle and cello add a more stately and steady, as the lyrical metaphor plays with the ideas of honest toil and working from the ground up to build happiness.
Several of Josh’s songs do spill over into the bluegrass, old-timey territory and there’s some truly exuberant playing. Silos And Smokestacks and Hare In A Hollow Hole probably give themselves away by title. But there are also You May Find Me and In The Devil’s Hands, the last of those being the album’s only co-write, which also features Betty lead vocals, with harmony from Nanci. It also features a powerful fiddle part, the bow cut’s across the strings like a buzzsaw in marked contrast to the more elegant playing elsewhere.
Josh generally takes the lead on the songs he’s written and he has that old-timey holler of a voice, which Betty sweetens with glorious harmonies. Not all of his songs are lightening quick, however, with Higher Ground being a particular highlight and showing off the vocal partnership between Josh and Betty, while the cello and violin stretch the melodic undercurrents over the steady pulse of he string bass.
It sits alongside Betty’s Poppies, one of the album’s most haunted and haunting songs. Lyrically she’s more obviously poetic than Josh, while his concerns revolve around labour or honest toil, working the land, building with wood and stone, Betty’s landscape is more introspective and here she sings, “Spring brings the saddest songs, without any clue to whom they belong.” Again a couple of her titles, To Sleep Alone and Pretty Ugly are highly suggestive and also live up to expectations. Josh’s September Eighth is less obvious in signposting heartbreak, but is a eulogy that serves as a dramatic climax to the album.
None the less the album maintains a fine balance of heady melancholy and outright exhilaration, but either way they play it so well. Some of the musicianship is astonishing, but it’s the combination of different influences and the unique blend that makes their sound special. You can see why they’ve been tipped in their local area as The Next Big Thing in a rolling competition sponsored by Eugene Weekly. Betty And The Boy emerge from The Wreckage, like a precious treasure that has somehow gained in lustre and significance, something very special indeed.
Review by: Simon Holland