The Arizonan Rolland and Sandoval families have Bluegrass in their genes. Matt and Grace Rolland’s father played at state festivals and they followed in his footsteps, as did Jennifer and Bekah Sandoval. All four studied at the University of Arizona, where they met Jesse Allen; all five played together through university before making their way into the big bad world. As if the musical ties that bind aren’t enough, Matt married Bekah in 2013, two years after the group won the famous Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band competition. So far, so Abba – no white jumpsuits though, as far as I know. In 2013 they came to the attention of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. So taken with their music and harmonies was Keillor, he wrote the liner notes for their 2013 debut So Sang The Whippoorwill and they have returned to the show since.
Something to Someone is their second album. Across its eleven tracks we’re treated to a fusion of traditional old-time and contemporary fiddle-led Bluegrass that is both instantly recognisable for its influences and fresh enough to stand on its own. Under The Boughs is a jaunty jig kick-started with fiddle chords that give way to a melody that ebbs and flows under three-part harmonies and a stop-start middle-eight that showcases Grace and Jesse’s contributions on Cello and Upright Bass. Wild Bill Jones and the slower waltz of A Dream In The Night, the latter flavoured with the merest hint of music hall dynamic, continue the strong start. The first standout is Spin A Golden Thread. Here the vocals, very reminiscent of The Wailin’ Jenny’s, find a melody in which they can stretch out and build a rising and repeating wave of beautiful noise, accompanied by music that wouldn’t seem out of place in a classical string quartet, Mandolin notwithstanding.
The overall sound is evocative of simpler times. There are no unnecessary complications in the song-writing, arrangements are unfussy and allow the songs to breathe. You can taste the salt spray, feel the tilled earth, see ruddy faced musicians in the light of ale-house fires. Heavy The Sorrow combines woozy cello lines with filigree Mandolin; the instrumental Sunday For Larks borrows some of its imagery from Vaughan William’s Lark Ascending, the lithe birds of Matt’s fiddle dancing up into the blue skies of a Summer morning. Locket bounds along like a teenager at fresher week, its story of young love the Appalachian equivalent of Meet Me In St Louis with a lovely change of pace towards the end.
In acknowledgement of the album’s strength, three of the best songs are the last on the album. The Lord Taketh Away is a lovely, mournful land-ballad and the title track shares its nature metaphors while exhorting us to sing the ‘…doubt out of our heart / Cast your net wide of love’. Closer Far From My Home highlights those harmonies again in a slow burner that steps up a gear towards the end and signs the album off with rhythmic hand-claps and a hopeful note. It takes a few listens (nowt’ wrong with that) but Something To Someone seeps beneath your guard until it feels like an old friend.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Something to Someone is released on Sky Island Records on 15 December.